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Australia says politicians no longer exempt from sexual harassment rules

Australia says politicians no longer exempt from sexual harassment rules
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Recent rape allegations sparked protests in Australia, with tens of thousands of women marching to call for gender equality and an end to sexual violence. (AFP)

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA -- Australian politicians will no longer be exempt from rules against sexual harassment at work, the conservative government announced Thursday as it tries to quell public anger over parliamentary sex abuse scandals.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government would overhaul the country s sexual discrimination laws to make members of parliament, judges and public servants accountable for harassing colleagues in the workplace.

"It s about getting everyone on as much of a playing field as possible," he told reporters in Canberra.

MPs, judges and public servants are currently exempt from anti-harassment rules that apply to other Australian workplaces, though they can still face criminal prosecution for sexual assault.

A young ex-staffer in Morrison s Liberal Party recently went public with allegations she was raped by a colleague in parliament in 2019, while a senior minister was forced to deny raping a 16-year-old when they were both students in the 1980s.

Critics said the cases, and the government s apparent initial reluctance to act, have highlighted a "toxic" and sexist culture in Australia s parliament.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash -- who last week replaced the rape-accused minister in the government s top legal role -- said other proposed legislative changes would include classifying sexual harassment at work as "serious misconduct" and making it valid grounds for dismissal.

The government also plans to extend the period in which a victim can report an incident from six months to two years, she added.

The prime minister rejected the criticism on Thursday, saying his government had already committed to funding several recommendations it felt were high priority.

"Last year, we were very focused on those very urgent needs to protect women at a time when they were very vulnerable during COVID," he said.

"We put the additional resources in and now we re in a position to address these more systemic and longer-term issues which are very important and I m pleased we re able to do that today."

The rape allegations sparked nationwide protests, with tens of thousands of women taking to the streets to call for gender equality and an end to sexual violence.

In recent weeks, Morrison s coalition government has been rocked by a litany of new sexual abuse and harassment complaints -- from a staff member photographed masturbating on a female politician s desk, to a state MP being accused of raping a sex worker, to another lawmaker apologising for harassing women online.

A media blitz aimed at showing Morrison s empathy with women has only added to the furore through a series of missteps, and he eventually demoted two top ministers in an attempt to draw a line under the scandals.
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