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Sexual harassment, bullying pervasive in Australia's Parliament, report shows

“Aspiring male politicians ... thought nothing of, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom,” one interviewee told researchers.

Australia’s Parliament is an environment hostile to women where sexual harassment is rife, according to a groundbreaking report on its working conditions.

Published by the Australian Human Rights Commission on Tuesday, the 450-page report noted that one-in-three people working in parliamentary workplaces experienced some form of sexual harassment. Workers described how men would kiss and fondle colleagues, women’s views were routinely dismissed and crying was an accepted part of the job.

“Aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom, comments about appearance ... the culture allowed it,” one person quoted anonymously in the report said.

The review, commissioned after a former staffer went public with allegations that she was raped in Parliament House in 2019, found that that women experienced both bullying and sexual harassment at a higher rate than men. It also found that 63 percent of female parliamentarians have experienced sexual harassment, compared with their male counterparts, though it noted that number was based on a small sample of respondents.

Former government staffer Brittany Higgins alleged that she had been raped by a colleague in a minister's office in 2019.Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images

“[T]he MP sitting beside me leaned over. Also thinking he wanted to tell me something, I leaned in. He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating,” read another anonymous comment shared in the report.

In addition to sexual harassment, 37 percent experienced some form of bullying at work. More than 1,700 people contributed to the report, which made 28 recommendations on how to create a safer workplace.

“Women we spoke to told us they felt ‘lucky’ when they had not directly experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said at a press conference.

“There is a worrying low level of reporting indicating that it is not safe to speak. Only 11 percent of people who experienced sexual harassment in a parliamentary workplace reported their experience.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the statistics in the report “appalling and disturbing,” and said his government will work with other political parties to deal with the issues raised.

Just hours after the report was released, senators accused other lawmakers of growling and making dog noises at a female colleague who was speaking in the chamber.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate, given what has been handed down today, to have growling and dog noises coming from this side of the chamber while a female member in this place is on her feet,” Sen. Sarah Hanson-Young said in the Senate.

Later in the day, she blasted the incident on Twitter.

“What is wrong with these people? They just don’t get it,” she wrote.

Accusations of sexism in Australian politics have surfaced before. Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made headlines around the world in 2012 when she accused opposition leader Tony Abbott of misogyny and sexism.

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” Gillard said in a speech in Parliament. “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”