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March 4 Justice: Australia’s 37 Years of Immunity

Trigger Warning: Mentions of sexual assault. 

In Australia, a sex discrimination act was passed in 1984. This was, of course, a step forward for women in the workforce especially: it sought to eliminate discrimination based on sex, sexuality, gender identity, etc. while also making moves to close the pay gap and destigmatize things like breastfeeding. However, another major goal was to reduce gender-based violence and sexual misconduct in the workplace. Here is an excerpt from the act, as can be found at Australia’s legislation website.

“It is unlawful for an employee to sexually harass a fellow employee or a person who is seeking employment with the same employer.”

This law seems very straightforward in its goal. However, the wording gave way to a loophole: politicians and judges were technically exempt from this law. The law, as seen above, prohibited sexual misconduct between “employee” and “employer”. Because of this, complaints filed against politicians and judges seemed to not be taken seriously. 

Take for example the fact that Australian Attorney General Christian Porter was accused of raping a 16-year old girl in 1988, and the investigation was only closed after the victim took her own life recently. Even more recently, political staffer Brittany Higgins came forward to share that she was raped “in Australia’s parliament house in Canberra”, which encouraged 3 other women to share similar stories about being assaulted by the same former colleague. According to Beth Gaze, a professor at Melbourne Law School, she cannot recall a time when an Australian politician or judge faced legal repercussions for sexual misconduct allegations. 

These accusations coupled with the recently discovered loophole in the Sex Discrimination Act have prompted a new movement amongst Australian women: The March 4 Justice. This protest occurred on March 15th of 2021 and took place in 40 cities throughout Australia. An estimated 110,000 people were in attendance to show their support. 

According to the movement’s website, there are 4 main demands:

  1. Full independent investigations into all cases of gendered violence and timely referrals to appropriate authorities. Full public accountability for findings.
  2. Fully implement the 55 recommendations in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces 2020.
  3. Lift public funding for gendered violence prevention to world’s best practice.
  4. The enactment of a federal Gender Equality Act to promote gender equality. It should include a gender equity audit of Parliamentary practices.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison offered to meet with the organizers of the protest in private but was refused. They wanted him to address this issue publicly. 

In response to this protest, Morrison announced on April 8th that politicians and judges would no longer be exempt from rules regarding sexual harassment and misconduct. And it only took 37 years. 

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