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Workplace Culture

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 1 July 2021

Tags: Women

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Speaker, I want to reflect on power in the workplace and the issue of consent. Obviously we are here today because of the statement made by the member for Franklin yesterday about an alleged incident that occurred in a workplace setting apparently around 2007. I want to come to that statement by the member for Franklin, Mr O'Byrne, yesterday.

Mr SPEAKER - Just be aware that any accusations should be made through a substantive motion, so be very careful where you go with your contribution.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you, Mr Speaker, I am not going to make any accusations. I am just going to read the words of the statement and reflect on them. This was a very carefully crafted statement. It was not made off the cuff and it was made to the media, so I am reporting what is in the public domain. It was pretty clear that Mr O'Byrne had considered every single word.

I want to reflect on what an apology looks like and what women, or in this case woman, but anyone who has been the victim of sexual harassment or sexual harassment in the workplace, would expect in an apology. What Mr O'Byrne said in his statement was:

“I acknowledge my behaviour did not meet the standards I would expect of myself.”

I found that an extraordinary statement because what does 'would' mean in that sentence? It is not clear what standards Mr O'Byrne expects of himself, but he did not say what he does expect of himself but what he would expect of himself - a future Mr O'Byrne, not the one there talking to the person who has made the complaint. He also said,

“I acknowledge I have let down my wife and family.”

That may well be the case, but I want to say - and I have heard this from other women; I believe Brittany Higgins made a comment about this - too often men in positions of power who have sexually harassed women invoke their wife and family, and it is a technique which effectively has a softening, if you like, when we invoke women and children. Traditionally that has been to dampen down, and ameliorate, and bring warm, soft things into a very difficult conversation. From the point of view of the woman who was the complainant, the impact it has had on Mr O'Byrne's wife and family is not very relevant. She is more concerned about the impact it has had on her life. Mr O'Byrne also said,

“I genuinely thank her for her strength to bring this issue to light”.

It is very hard to believe the veracity of the statement he made, given that Mr O'Byrne's first response was to threaten the ABC with legal action if they took the report from the claimant and made it public. His first response was to deny the reality of what the complainant had said, so I do not think there is anything genuine when he said that he thanked her for her strength to bring this issue to light. It is hard to suffer that. He also said:

“I also thank other women who have advocated and spoken about their personal experiences to inform the current national conversation about consent.”

In saying that, Mr O'Byrne makes it sound like he is part of this national conversation against sexual harassment in the workplace. The reality is he was part of the problem and, by invoking a national conversation with women like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, he is avoiding the reality of the sexual harassment that has been alleged and the fundamental situation it was within - which was a workplace. The point is that nowhere in Mr O'Byrne's statement is there any unreserved apology for the abuse of his power over a young female junior employee. He continued:

“At the time I genuinely believed the kiss and text exchanges to be consensual.”

He then said:

“This matter has caused me to reflect deeply on the nature of consent and I have to come to appreciate why the person concerned says our interaction was not consensual.”

It was not consensual because it could not be consensual and that is the point that Mr O'Byrne clearly does not appreciate. There cannot be consent in that situation. The fact is that people, in this case a young woman, all too often remain silent in workplace situations - or apparently consent to sexual harassment, for very legitimate reasons - because they fear reprisal, because they fear for their job security.

That is exactly what is alleged to have happened in this situation. It is alleged by the woman speaking to the complainant that she said she broke down in tears. She was called into a meeting with Mr O'Byrne and given a verbal warning regarding her performance. This was after she had pushed back at the inappropriate text messages and attempts at kisses. So this abuse of power is what really needs to be addressed in this situation