Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under increasing pressure to address what’s been described as a toxic culture in Australia’s Parliament, as police investigate an alleged rape in the 1980s involving a politician who is now a Cabinet minister.
The Australian Federal Police said at the weekend it had received a complaint in relation to a historic sexual assault and would be liaising with relevant state authorities. The alleged victim killed herself in June last year and details of the claims have been sent by her friends to two senators and the prime minister’s office.
Morrison was already under pressure over the workplace culture at Parliament House after a former government media adviser, Brittany Higgins, said last month that after a night of drinking with colleagues in 2019 she was raped by a fellow staffer in a minister’s office. Several female lawmakers have complained about a male-dominated and disempowering culture in Canberra.
“The prime minister needs to lead here and so far his silence is deafening,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who was sent documents detailing the 1988 alleged assault, told ABC radio on Monday. “Simply leaving it lingering there does not resolve the issue and creates a serious problem for this government of integrity and trust.”
She called for the Cabinet minister, who has not been identified, to stand aside while the matter is investigated.
Anthony Albanese, leader of the main opposition Labor party, said the matter was a test for Morrison and that it was up to him to judge whether the minister should remain in the Cabinet. “We need to make sure that these serious allegations — that they are investigated appropriately, and that these issues aren’t politically managed,” he told the ABC on Sunday.
In the past two weeks the prime minister has faced a barrage of questions in Parliament about his knowledge of the Higgins case, and claims that she wasn’t given adequate support.
The mistreatment of women in Parliament made global headlines in 2012 when Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, accused opposition leader Tony Abbott of misogyny.
More recently, former foreign minister Julie Bishop has blasted behavior by lawmakers that wouldn’t be “tolerated in any other workplaces across Australia.” Another lawmaker, Julia Banks, said bullying had driven her to decide to quit Parliament, while a former senator was ordered to pay Hanson-Young 120,000 Australian dollars ($93,000) in damages for a series of statements that she said had amounted to sexual discrimination.
Despite priding itself on being among the first countries to give women the right to vote and stand as candidates, Australia has plummeted to 50th in global rankings for parliamentary representation of women from 15th in 1999.
ABC’s Four Corners news program reported that the alleged assault took place in 1988, citing an anonymous letter shared by a source close to the alleged victim.
Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong, who also received the documents, said she disclosed the allegation “to help keep people safe and save lives in the future,” while Hanson-Young called the claims “disturbing” and of a “criminal nature.”
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