Scott Morrison has promised a radical overhaul of training and standards for Liberal Party staff, as he faces seething anger from Parliament House employees over his fumbling response to serious sexual misconduct issues.
A staffers’ “strike” inside the building, an extraordinary and incorrect claim of sexual harassment against the nation’s biggest media company, and an historic address to Liberal employees punctuated another damaging day for the government.
“It is one thing to say that you hear the women of Australia. But it is another thing to act,” railed Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally.
Mr Morrison gave a morning press conference where he admitted his response to recent events had been lacking, acknowledging he “could have chosen different words” but defending decisions to speak about his wife and daughters when weighing his actions.
But his planned mea culpa moment didn’t go as planned, with headlines instead dominated by his extraordinary claim of knowledge about a sexual harassment allegation inside News Corp.
The PM was accused of “outing” a victim without their consent, in what Labor claimed was political point-scoring and “weaponising” such reports.
But a blistering statement from News Corp said Mr Morrison was “wrong” in his allegations, with company chairman Michael Miller shooting back that the PM had actually conflated several separate claims.
“It is simply untrue and it undermines the principle that people must be able to raise issues safely and in confidence,” Mr Miller said.
Late on Wednesday night, Mr Morrison took to Facebook to issue an apology for his “deeply insensitive” response to the News Corp journalist.
“I was wrong to raise it, the emotion of the moment is no excuse,” he said.
“I especially wish to apologise to the individual at the centre of the incident and others directly impacted.
“I had no right to raise the issue and especially without their permission.”
At the morning press conference, Mr Morrison had said he’d “strongly support” compulsory harassment and misconduct training for all people working in Parliament House, plus a “more robust and independent” staff complaints mechanism.
The deputy secretary of his Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet is finalising a report, he said, on internal workplace changes to be made in Parliament.
“She is still working on that report and she has asked for some further time on the report to get it right,” Mr Morrison said.
“I will have a lot more to say about this in the next month about further action.”
Hours later, he addressed all Liberal Party staff in an extraordinary meeting inside Parliament’s Great Hall.
The New Daily understands the PM told staff he was considering ordering mandatory, face-to-face workplace health and safety training for all Coalition staff.
Other items in his sights include beefing up a Coalition human resources team – a support system the Parliament currently lacks – to provide guidance, as well as a Coalition staff reference group.
This would be in addition to existing support mechanisms, training, and the new 1800-phone line for staff complaints.
Several Coalition staffers in the meeting told TND they were buoyed by the PM’s response and optimistic it would help address issues raised in recent weeks, such as around the Brittany Higgins rape allegations and the lewd acts of Coalition staffers detailed in a Channel 10 report on Monday.
It came after a morning where the issues inside the Liberal Party drew anger from inside and outside the tent.
A group of Labor and Greens staffers staged a symbolic sit-in protest inside the prayer room where – according to the Channel 10 report – MPs and staff meet to have sex.
Staffers told TND the report was “the last straw”, catapulting their seething anger over recent weeks into real-world action.
“That someone would do that to their own boss is horrific, but that culture is pervasive,” Labor staffer Georgia Tree said.
Separately, Greens senator Lidia Thorpe aired allegations of “brazen” sexual harassment she’d received from at least four male federal politicians. She told the Canberra Times one politician often walked behind her and others had made suggestive remarks, calling it behaviour she’d expect “in a nightclub, not in my workplace”.
Today I was asked by the media whether I had experienced harassment in my short time as a Senator here at Parliament House.
The truth is, I have. Too often, with male MPs and Senators – and I've only been here for six months. Thread/ https://t.co/4rA4bRgu3n
— Senator Lidia Thorpe (@lidia__thorpe) March 23, 2021
Industry Minister Karen Andrews, responding to the Channel 10 report, said she had “had a gutful” of the issues enveloping Parliament.
“My conscience will not allow me to remain quiet. There are some specific instances in this building that are absolutely unacceptable. What does it say about an individual that thinks that sort of behaviour is OK?” the Liberal minister said incredulously.
“For all those women who have been treated poorly in a workplace, who have been disrespected by men, I will speak up for you.”
In response to questions from TND, Ms Andrews said her party and Parliament broadly should be reconsidering recruitment processes and support for staff and MPs.
Ms Andrews’ Coalition colleague, Michelle Landry, said she “felt sorry” for the staffer sacked over a vile sex act on a female MP’s desk.
“I don’t feel bad at all for him,” Ms Andrews replied bluntly.
“The behaviour was appalling. Not more I could say to that.”
Labor welcomed the commitments from Mr Morrison to clean up culture inside Parliament, but said he needed to do more.
- For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 13 11 14