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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Tags: Women, Workers Rights, Sexism

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, I thank my colleague, the independent member for Clark, Ms Johnston, for moving urgency on a motion that affirms this House's support for women and girls to come forward and affirms our commitment to a safe workplace for women and girls.

I also acknowledge the trauma of Ms Midson and of every women who has been affected by the conduct of Mr O'Byrne and the nature of internal Labor Party investigation. There has been vicarious trauma across the community amongst women and girls who have this nagging feeling that things are never going to change, that even in a party like the Labor Party, which makes so much of standing for gender equality, for the rights of women and girls, that you can have conduct like this that apparently is not in breach of policies that existed at the time.

Let us have a look at what sexual harassment is. It was very pithily defined by Mr David Killick in his editorial of late last week:

Sexual harassment is an unwelcome sexual advance or an unwelcome request for sexual favours in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

Yet we have from the report undertaken by Barbara Deegan an acknowledgement that behaviour which under that definition is sexual harassment took place. Unwanted kisses and sexually explicit text messages to a junior employee from their boss - by definition, that is sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet this internal Labor Party report, which has not been made public, glosses over that. On behalf of women and girls, we want to know why? It has the look and feel of a whitewash about it. We should acknowledge that the complainant felt utterly betrayed by that Labor Party process and what she understands have been the findings of that investigation. What does it say about the Labor Party, that the report summary of the findings said:

Barbara Deegan found whilst the respondent's conduct was inappropriate and wrong, it does not mean that it was in breach of the policy as in force at the relevant time.

We are not talking about last century - this is 2007-08. The report found Mr O'Byrne did kiss Ms Midson on three occasions and sent her three sexually explicit text messages, but his conduct did not breach ALP policy. That is utterly sickening. What does it say about the Labor Party? It says that there is a rot inside the Labor Party.

I acknowledge the work that the Labor Party has done to make sure women are elected into parliaments but there is a boys' club of faceless men who run the party. They will run protection for people on a factional basis when they believe it suits their political purpose. While there may be more women elected as a result of Labor's affirmative action policies, the real power, the machinery, is still heavily dominated by men.

Back to the report of Ms Deegan's investigation:

In relation to allegation 1, based on the evidence on the witnesses, Ms Deegan found that at the time the conduct occurred there was a consensual and flirtatious atmosphere about the interactions between complainant and the respondent.

Again, that is utterly sickening. It denies the manifest power imbalance in place at the time. A young, union employee, female, facing unwanted advances from her boss, who was twice her age. That is not a flirtatious atmosphere: it is an atmosphere where there is a power imbalance that allows for sexual harassment.

Back to the reporting:

In relation to allegation 2, Ms Deegan found in all the circumstances, given the flirtatious relationship that had existed between them at the time, she was unable to be satisfied to the requisite extent that it was reasonable to anticipate that the complainant would feel offended, humiliated or intimidated by the conduct.

That is denying the victim here their agency and voice. It is a disgraceful finding that will dishearten women and girls and discourage them from coming forward, particularly if they are connected to the Labor Party or the union movement of today. That is sad for all the good people in the Labor Party and the union movement. It goes back to the blokie, factional boys' club of faceless men who run the party. That is the challenge for the newly reinstated Leader of the Opposition, Ms White - to take on that boys' club. Unless it happens, democracy in Tasmania is sicker and sadder because we do not have a strong opposition. I wish you all strength, Ms White, in taking them on.

I was unaware at the time of the alleged incident which is reported in the Tasmanian Times and which Ms Johnston read out into the Hansard, but once it was published I took some steps to confirm the veracity of the information.

I have absolutely no doubt it is 100 per cent true. No doubt in my mind at all. It points to a pattern of behaviour of disrespect for women and girls. Two young women, at night time, volunteering for the Greens in an office, confronted by that. Let us just go back briefly to the language that is reportedly used.

'Hello, little Greenies in the Green Shop.'

They were really drunk, says this report. They could barely walk, they were totally out of it. And this story says -

O'Byrne said to Imogen -

Imogen is a pseudonym to protect the identity of these two young women, and he made it sound so sleazy -

'Maybe you and I should work on some Labor/Green relations, hey?' He said to me -

And this is to Chloe, which is also a pseudonym for a Greens volunteer,

'Well, you're a bit tight, aren't you? Maybe you need some Labor policy in you as well, sweetie.'

There is no excuse for speaking to women and girls like this. You can be blind drunk and know that it is wrong. And Mr Speaker, I have no doubt at all that this is a pattern of behaviour. Since these allegations were first raised and the complaint was made public, I have been made aware of other women who have received unwanted advances by the member for Franklin.

I reflect briefly on what happened when I tried to defend myself in this place from the grotesque accusation of being called a racist by my colleague, Ms Haddad, who has never apologised for that. I tried to defend myself, got booted out, raised my voice once at the end - and then the next day on the lawns of parliament, Mr O'Byrne said I was screaming and hysterical. That, Mr Speaker, is gendered language. It is the language of someone who just does not get it. When I took him on about it, he denied it was gendered language, because apparently he consults other women about what is and is not gendered language. I do not know who those women are, but if he is, they do not get it either.

So, where are we? It is an almost Shakespearian tragedy. If we go back to this ambitious Labor member, I remember he undermined the former premier David Bartlett, and undermined Lara Giddings when she was premier - and we were in Cabinet with Ms Giddings. Daily undermining because of his ambition to lead the Labor Party. And so, after the last state election, because of that ambition - where Mr O'Byrne was undermining Ms White, too - we ended up with something akin to a coup. It was one of the shortest Opposition leaderships in Tasmania's history. Ambition thwarted by the proven behaviour of Mr O'Byrne. Well, well, well. These are the consequences of his own actions.

Now we have a parliament in which Mr O'Byrne has been booted from the caucus, will not leave the Labor Party, is still sitting on the backbench, and is a millstone around the neck of every Labor member in this place.

I do not believe the five women who have been mentioned by Ms Johnston in her contribution are all there are. We are at a time in Australia's history where men who have sexually harassed or discriminated against women in the past are facing the consequences of their actions. The arrogance of being so ambitious, and wanting that job - and yet, behaving in a way that surely, had he thought about it for a moment, would be made public.

I have said in here before: fellas, that time is over when you could just do that and expect to get away with it. It is over.

Women and girls have not had justice yet, because last week our Prime Minister put an alleged 'rapist', Christian Porter, in charge of government business in the House of Representatives. What that tells us is that the highest level in our country, the Prime Minister, does not have respect for women and girls. It was disgraceful, and it again has traumatised women and girls across Tasmania.

Earlier in the debate on the seeking of leave, I reflected on the mood of the room, at the Anna Stewart Memorial event, among women who work in the union movement, in the community sector - simmering with rage, and this sense of what will it take - as Ms Johnston said, 'Five women, 10 women, 15 women, 50 women?' - for there to be some change. We need change in the Labor Party for sure, but we also need societal change, so that men in positions of power do not feel they can behave in lewd, harassing ways to women.

There is a measure of justice because Mr O'Byrne is no longer in the parliamentary Labor Party, which he says he has given his life to, but he is still sitting in here. Ultimately, I have been a bit cautious about saying he should resign his seat, because we are elected by the people, and the honour of being elected to this place is a compact that we have with our constituents.

How does Mr O'Byrne think he is going to represent women and girls who live in his electorate of Franklin, when he has not taken the necessary responsibility for his behaviours?

Initially, we had a threat to sue the Australian Broadcasting Commission when the story came out, and then an admission on 30 June where he said, in a statement I still cannot quite decipher, 'I acknowledge that my behaviour did not meet the standards I would expect of myself'. I still do not really know what that means. It is the behaviour that we need to model for the communities that we represent. He says, 'At the time of the reported events I genuinely believed the kiss and text exchanges to be consensual'. What kind of arrogance forms that view when you are dealing with a 22 year old junior? He further says:

However, I now understand that this was not the case. The matter has caused me to reflect deeply on the nature of consent and I have come to appreciate why the person concerned says our interaction was not consensual.

Then the Deegan Report, which none of us has seen, comes out and we have this statement from Mr O'Byrne:

The findings confirm that the public statements by several politicians about my conduct were disproportionate, unfair and opportunistic.

Talk about playing the victim. How dare he? I go on:

The statements assumed I was guilty of misconduct before any allegations were tested and investigated.

No, Mr O'Byrne admitted the misconduct. He admitted it once he got busted and yet there is this unique form of gaslighting - that is the only word I can find for it - where first you have an admission and then you have a denial that implies you feel exonerated by an internal Labor Party investigation which found that unwanted kisses and sexually explicit text messages was not, by definition, sexual harassment in the workplace. The statement from Mr O'Byrne goes on:

I hope that all politicians and public figures with an interest in this matter will now publicly acknowledge the findings and integrity of Barbara Deegan's investigation.

That is not contrition, that is a desperate pitch for political survival and probably, sadly, to keep his family together.

I acknowledge that this is a very difficult time for Labor and that having returned from the great joy of becoming a mum for the second time, Ms White has had to deal with this. I am somewhat encouraged by Ms White's statement today. I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition yesterday on behalf of the Greens encouraging Ms White to make a statement in the strongest terms in support of women and girls and a safe workplace. It is a pointer to one of the problems with the Labor Party that once the Deegan Report was finalised and there were reports of its findings, there was an attempt to make it go away with a statement on 17 August that says:

This independent investigation was carried out in line with the policy of the Labor Party and at arm's length from the Labor Party and myself.

Ms White said:

It was carried out by a highly-respected independent investigator, Barbara Deegan. I acknowledge that this has been a difficult time for the individuals involved and the Labor Party more broadly. I also acknowledge the investigator has concluded that no further action is required. David O'Byrne has a clear commitment to Tasmania and will continue his strong work in the electorate of Franklin as a member of the parliamentary Labor team.

That was a failure of leadership. I have a sense that what happened over the following 24 hours is that women who are connected to the Labor Party or who have had workplace experiences with Mr O'Byrne got in touch with his wife about that statement which attempted to make it all go away, which it was never going to do. Then we had a slightly more strongly worded statement the next day where Ms White said:

I feel deeply uncomfortable about the events of the past few days and the pain that has been caused to individuals, the Labor Party and the broader community. As the Leader of the Labor Party and as a woman, I want to make sure that we uphold certain standards and continue to foster a culture that is safe and respectful and that people can safely come forward if they have a complaint.

We needed to hear something a bit more like that the previous day. The signal that went out to the complainant but also to other women who have had encounters with Mr O'Byrne that they felt deeply uncomfortable about, but also to the broader community of women and girls, is that this was going to be whitewashed, that the Labor Party wanted this to go away.

It is not going to go away. We have heard some fine words in this place when we have debated, for example, rape culture, when we have acknowledged the mighty Grace Tame and the powerful voice she is for women and girls and survivors of sexual assault and rape. I reflect on one of the most self-professed passionate feminists in this place, Ms O'Byrne, who in an adjournment debate on 16 March this year, got up on her high horse in here and said these things:

Listen to women, believe them, call out behaviours and act to make workplaces safe. There are practical things we can do.

An important message from yesterday - and this is the rally on the lawns:

… was that insecure work means that women are vulnerable in their workplace. Act to give women enough security in their jobs to be able to say when they are unsafe. Act when complaints are made.

Use your voice and use your privilege to call out the behaviours and demand consequences. Do not be more concerned about his career than the alleged assault. Do not believe him over her just because you know him. Demand better responses to sexual harassment and assault…

And on it goes.

Every word of what Ms O'Byrne said in that adjournment contribution can be supported but it points to the utter double standard, the reason that people are so depressed about the state of the modern Labor Party in Tasmania. Say one thing out one side of your face and then when the crunch comes, do another or say nothing. The hypocrisy is nauseating.

There are other members who want to make a contribution. I very much look forward to that. I listened very carefully to Mr O'Byrne's lengthy statement this morning and I did not hear enough contrition. I did not hear that this is a person with enough self-reflection to be capable of redemption. I do not know what the end of this Shakespearean tale will be, but I know it will not end today.

I acknowledge the courage of Rachel Midson. I acknowledge the guts of every woman who comes forward with a story to tell about not being safe in their workplace, about being harassed and about being assaulted. I do not reckon there are many women in this place who have not at some point in our working lives, been harassed or discriminated against in our workplace. This is an issue that is endemic.

Until we, in leadership positions take this on and force change, nothing will change. You will have women like the women at the Anna Stewart Memorial event simmering with rage a sense of injustice. Every woman and girl is entitled to feel safe in our community. All women are entitled to feel safe in their workplace. All women should have the right to come forward and know if they make an allegation of sexual harassment, assault or discrimination that they will be seen, heard, supported and their allegation will be thoroughly and independently investigated. That is not what has happened in this case.

The events of recent months have unfortunately, brought shame on us all. I do not accept Mr O'Byrne's explanation or alleged apology. I do not believe he understands what he did then was wrong, what he did when he walked into our campaign headquarters in 2018 was disgusting and wrong. I do not accept it because I believe Mr O'Byrne has fallen, that he is not acknowledging and he needs to. Ultimately, this is about his relationship with the people of Franklin and whether or not he thinks he can adequately and well represent them when he will not take responsibility for his own actions.