SYDNEY, Australia — Top lawmakers in Australia, the prime minister among them, formally apologized on Tuesday to employees in the federal Parliament for a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and assault in the nation’s halls of power.
The apology, endorsed broadly among the political parties, was a recognition — if overdue and performative, some activists said — of the widespread calls for change after a damning review last year of Parliament’s toxic workplace.
That report, spurred in part by a former parliamentary employee’s account of being raped in the defense minister’s office, painted a chilling portrait in which powerful men faced few consequences as they crossed boundaries with young female staff members, sometimes with alcohol present.
“Any bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault is unacceptable and wrong,” said Andrew Wallace, the speaker of the House of Representatives. “We say sorry.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison echoed Mr. Wallace. “Sorry is the start,” he said, adding that he wanted politics to be a place where young women, in particular, could follow their dreams, rather than “have them crushed by brutality and the misuse of power.”
The acknowledgment that parliamentary leaders had failed to ensure a safe workplace was the first in a series of measures suggested by the review, which was compiled by Kate Jenkins, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner.
The review found that one-third of employees in Parliament had experienced sexual harassment, with rates reaching 40 percent for women. About 1 percent of the 1,700 people surveyed said they had experienced actual or attempted sexual assault.
The report came nine months after Brittany Higgins, a former staff member for the center-right Liberal Party, said she had been raped by a colleague in 2019. The allegation rocked the country’s center of power, spurred other women to come forward with their own allegations, and prompted outraged protests across Australia.
The man Ms. Higgins accused of rape, Bruce Lehrmann, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
On Tuesday, Mr. Morrison singled out Ms. Higgins in his remarks.
“I’m sorry to Ms. Higgins for the terrible things that took place here,” he said. “And the place that should have been a place of safety and contribution turned out to be a nightmare.”
Mr. Morrison had also apologized to Ms. Higgins last February, a day after she had made her allegation public. He was criticized for saying that he had come to understand the gravity of the situation only after speaking with his wife, who had told him to imagine that his own daughters had been assaulted.
Ms. Jenkins, the sex discrimination commissioner, called the parliamentary acknowledgment on Tuesday “an important first step,” adding on Twitter that she was heartened by the “clear and unequivocal apologies from across parliament.”
“I am confident we are at the start of real and lasting change,” she said.
Still, advocates for victims of sexual assault and harassment said the apology did not go far enough to deliver accountability, and they called for all of the review’s recommendations to be carried out. In her review, Ms. Jenkins proposed a series of measures to address the power imbalances, gender inequality and lack of accountability in Parliament.
“How about some proactive, preventative measures and not just these performative, last-minute bandaid electioneering stunts?” Grace Tame, a prominent advocate for survivors of sexual assault, said on Twitter.
Leaders in Parliament also faced criticism on Tuesday after Ms. Higgins, who was set to give a speech in Canberra, the capital, told an Australian news site that she had not initially been invited to attend Parliament to hear the apology in person. That omission, apparently related to Covid restrictions, was later rectified, according to the site, News.com.au.
The parliamentary apology would have had a greater impact had it properly acknowledged the people who had been affected and allowed them to be present, said Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University and a former parliamentary staff member.
“Where are all the women’s organizations? Where’s all the former staffers whose moment it was?” she said. “In the absence of that, it’s hollow.”
“It doesn’t actually matter what he says at this point,” she added of Mr. Morrison. What matters is how Parliament “implements Jenkins’s recommendations. That’s what counts.”
“The road map is clear,” she said.
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