Pressure grows on Australian parliament for change

Image copyright Chris Mouyame/Getty Images Image caption The latest sexual harassment claims have prompted calls for changes

Sexual harassment in Australia’s parliament was endemic and covered up, according to an investigation published by ABC’s Four Corners.

There was a culture of “unwanted physical contact” between senior politicians and their staff and within their staff, it found.

It also found senior MPs told staff not to talk about the harassment because doing so could affect their political careers.

The government and opposition are under pressure to change the way the country’s parliament operates.

The report comes amid mounting sexual harassment and harassment allegations across the West.

In Britain, the Commons Speaker John Bercow is facing criticism for joking about sexually inappropriate behaviour by an opposition MP.

Meanwhile, Hollywood has been rocked by a series of sex harassment and assault allegations.

In Australia, four female former MPs have told the Four Corners program about the kind of sexual harassment they experienced, in the centre of a country in which its parliament is tightly controlled by a rule-based culture and in which MPs are loath to complain about their own workplace.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke to Four Corners about the type of insults and sexual advances she says male MPs levelled at her during her time in parliament.

She recalled one time, in the first few days of her first term as PM, when Mr Abbott, the now-defeated prime minister, ordered her to turn over her shirt.

“And he said, ‘Get up on that desk and wash me, and I’ll touch you there as well’,” she said.

Ms Gillard said her experience as prime minister was typical of the mistreatment she experienced in parliament.

Image copyright Darren England Image caption The former prime minister likened a former MP’s behaviour to that of Weinstein

“But more than that, because I had come into parliament and become prime minister, because of my gender and because of the fact that I was Australian I was also on the defensive; that I was the object of all sorts of judgments.

“I was told I would never be prime minister.

“I was told ‘Don’t vote for Julia Gillard because she has a Damascene conversion. She never knew how to deal with Australians’.

“I was told ‘She was made this way by Australian males’.

“And those are only a few of the negative things.

“There are things like saying if you become prime minister you will be replaced because she will alienate the women of Australia”.

And Liberal backbencher, Warren Entsch said that he was one of several MPs who had to block them from sexually harassing staff.

“I found that many were coming up to staff and saying that they’ve just never had anyone grab them or touch them that way and I decided I would have to block that,” he said.

Former speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, has also spoken out.

“I used to cringe when I saw the women during the day because they looked so uncomfortable,” she said.

“I thought, you know I hope I’m not their boss now.

“I thought these are my politicians and I have to make sure they’re protected.

“They are working for me and I have to protect them.”

Budget cuts

Australia’s Parliament faces a separate problem – a shortage of female MPs.

The country’s birth rate has dropped off, leaving women with fewer children than men.

Four Corners said MPs were elected on a promise to grow the number of women in the parliament, and that seats in parliament were based on who you know, rather than gender.

But efforts to grow female representation have fallen flat, with the figure currently standing at just 17%.

The Four Corners report said few women candidates believed they could win a seat based on their gender alone, and talked about how little encouragement they had received from their political party.

And the problem extends to parliament’s parliamentary staff, who face limited pay and conditions compared to their male counterparts.

Four Corners said there was a belief that if women didn’t feel they could get jobs, they would stay at home instead of entering parliament.

The parliamentary speaker on the Four Corners investigation, Peter Slipper, said the rate of female MPs joining parliament had fallen by half and it was time for the party leaders to reverse the trend.

“More women ought to be elected so they can change the culture,” he said.

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