Human rights

Parliament and the STC: What not to do about workplace sexual harassment

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Dr Jennifer Wilson analyses the bewildering circumstances around allegations against actor Geoffrey Rush and the distinct lack of "inappropriate behaviour" allegations within the Australian Parliamentary workplace. 

JOURNALIST TRACEY SPICER has lately been conducting a long-overdue investigation into sexual harassment in the media world.

Hundreds of women have contacted Spicer and Fairfax's Kate McClymont with their accounts of sexual misconduct by powerful men in the industry. These accounts reveal an astounding continuum of misbehaviour and crime that has gone largely unchallenged publicly, until now.

Spicer describes a media “protection racket”, in which a culture of silence and collusion ensures powerful men are protected from scrutiny and accountability. Victims risk losing their careers or being shamed and shunned in workplaces where an unwritten part of a woman’s job description is, apparently, that she tolerate sexual harassment without complaint.

Spicer and McClymont set up a safe process in which women can reveal to them, many for the first time, the effects of predatory male behaviour on their psychological and physical well-being, and their media careers. As is always the case, once a few women speak out others are freed to follow. Spicer and McClymont have facilitated this enactment of the #MeToo movement in Australian media and it is their goal to encourage victims to pursue their complaints in the courts when possible.

On Friday, IA's David Donovan tweeted that he’d heard Spicer is also receiving complaints from women about sexual predation by members of parliament. Spicer is referring these complaints to other journalists for investigation. Presumably, these are mainstream journalists and Donovan notes, as do I, that this choice of referral does not fill either of us with confidence that the complaints will be handled with the forensic attention so far paid to media offenders.

In the last few months, we have seen the Harvey Weinstein scandal, sexual scandals in the British Parliament and the ongoing sexual shenanigans of U.S. politicians throw some much-needed light on the astounding number of males, in various positions of power, who consider women in their workplace sexual game. It is beyond belief that the Australian Parliamentary workplace is free from sexual predation and yet we are expected to accept that this is the one workplace from which sexual harassment of women is miraculously absent.

Or rather – and worse – we are expected to accept that this is the one workplace where sexual harassment is normalised and legitimised to the degree that no one should be required to expose it, and prevent its occurrence.

This is the one workplace where it is accepted that the sexual harassment and abuse of female employees should go, for the most part, publicly unremarked and unchallenged.

'If our legislators are enabled by a media cone of silence ... they are hardly going to concern themselves with our welfare ... no matter how many white ribbons they pin to their lapels.'

The wider the sweep of the spotlight on other workplaces, the more apparent it becomes that the Australian Parliament is protected from its glare. MPs are, it would seem, entitled to view women as sexual objects without that perception being subject to challenge. An unfortunate point of view for legislators to hold, I suggest, especially when they are responsible for protecting us, through laws and funding, from violence against us and our children.

It’s hardly a coincidence, a cynic might conclude, that although on average a woman is murdered every week by a man, funding for frontline services that assist and protect us is woefully inadequate. If our legislators are enabled by a media cone of silence to treat females in their workplace as less than human, they are hardly going to concern themselves with our welfare in the wider world, no matter how many white ribbons they pin to their lapels.

There is no comparable process that enables women enduring harassment in the Parliamentary workplace to confidentially speak of their experiences, as women in media can to Spicer and McClymont. We have seen, over and over, the power of the media to expose sexual predation and to offer women a platform from which to disclose how our lives are curtailed by the unwelcome sexual advances of men in our workplace, and the disastrous effects this can have on our well-being and society. Yet, so far in Australia, no journalists have undertaken to conduct an investigation into complaints of sexual harassment against MPs and other men in the Parliamentary workplace.

Why is this so, we may well ask. Why not this workplace, when so many others are under scrutiny? Is a “protection racket” similar to that in the media industry operative in Parliament — one that includes the journalists who work there?  

What must it be like to be a woman in that workplace currently enduring sexual harassment, or a woman who has left her career because of harassment, who knows she has nowhere to go with her complaints because the media is, it appears, complicit in her abuse?

The Saturday Paper’s Karen Middleton wrote a piece on her experience and this is the only account of the Australian situation that I’ve read. No one is held accountable in this piece. No names are named. Given the circumstances, Middleton can hardly be blamed for granting the predators anonymity. I doubt she would receive much support from her colleagues.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a retired press gallery journalist, who told me sexual harassment was and is rife in the Parliamentary workplace and he named journalists who know everything there is to know but will not speak out. These journalists are, by their silence, complicit in the abuse of women. The same journalists freely comment on similar situations in other workplaces at home and abroad. I seriously question their right to speak on any other circumstances of harassment while they maintain their silence about what occurs in our Parliament.

I have little hope that any complaints of sexual harassment by MPs and others will be acknowledged, let alone investigated, by these journalists. I have little hope that they will provide a safe space in which women can reveal their experiences of abuse. I have little hope that these journalists will, as do Spicer and McClymont, encourage victims to pursue justice in the courts when that is possible. The Australian Parliamentary workplace is currently a protected hunting ground for sexual predators. Nobody is holding them to account – except in rare circumstances – and nobody is enabling victims to speak out.


And so to the bizarre situation between the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and actor Geoffrey Rush. The STC furnished the Daily Telegraph with a statement to the effect that they had received a complaint of inappropriate behaviour by Rush towards a colleague, in the company’s 2015 production of King Lear. The complainant wished to remain anonymous, did not want Rush to be advised of her complaint and did not wish to take the matter further.

Yet, apparently without offering Rush the natural justice to which he is entitled, apparently disregarding the complainant’s desire for confidentiality and without informing Rush of either the complaint or their intentions, the STC – for reasons as yet unknown – decided to issue a statement about the situation to the Daily Telegraph. This led to sustained and appalling characterisations of Rush by the Murdoch rag — actions that have now culminated in Rush initiating defamation proceedings.

It seems beyond belief that the STC would release a statement to the Telegraph without first informing Rush of the allegations against him and would fail to invoke the due process to which Rush must be entitled as an accused individual in his workplace. Indeed, as everything to do with the complaint other than an alleged anonymous accusation remains confidential, how are we to know there was any complaint at all? I raise this possibility not to cast doubt on victims, but to question the reliability of an organisation that uses a tabloid with the reputation of the Telegraph to reveal a situation such as this one.

There are currently two “explanations” doing the rounds. One is that the STC is cursed with outstandingly inept public relations and human resources personnel, who have made an incomprehensibly daft attempt to head off the Telegraph’s interest – triggered by an informant – before it gains traction. Instead, they’ve thrown petrol on the kindling.

The other is more conspiratorial, suggesting that Rush has offended the powerful holders of funding purse strings and/or colleagues, so the STC and the Telegraph are in vengeful cahoots to destroy him. Pick your side.

Rush is in the invidious situation of having to defend himself against mysterious allegations (the nature of which he states remain unknown to him) made by an anonymous complainant, bereft of all natural justice, ridiculed and humiliated in the Murdoch press, on the basis of nothing at all of substance, thanks to the STC. 

Imagine your employer releasing information about your alleged misconduct towards an anonymous colleague, who expressly requested that you not be informed of her allegation, to a tabloid newspaper. In what workplace is this acceptable?

If the STC did receive a complaint against Rush and did agree to withhold the allegations from him, and did agree to protect the complainant’s identity, what are they doing releasing statements to the Telegraph?

Inappropriate behaviour in the workplace will not be adequately addressed by methods such as this. A complainant who has been assured of anonymity and has decided to take the matter no further will no doubt be horrified to find herself in the sights of the Murdoch press, thanks to an employer’s inexplicable betrayal. A woman spoke up on the condition of confidentiality. She has now been deliberately exposed, by the very people in whom she confided, to a range of alarming consequences she, no doubt, hoped to avoid by her decision not to take the complaint against Rush any further.

Everything that has thus far occurred in this bewildering and unsavoury set of circumstances discourages victims from speaking out. A highly public defamation action makes the likelihood of maintaining the complainant’s anonymity slim. There is no way I can see of the complainant avoiding suffering more damage than she already allegedly has as a result of the STC’s actions.

And when did we start assuming guilt on the basis of an anonymous and unsubstantiated complaint, while denying the alleged defendant any access to due process and natural justice?

This entire situation stinks like a dead cod left in the sun.

Or, as Shakespeare more eloquently put it:

'Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides …' 

~ King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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