Greens senator Lidia Thorpe has been accused of “slut-shaming” and intimidation, after she allegedly told a Liberal senator to keep her legs shut during a heated debate.
Coalition, Labor and crossbench members on Thursday morning criticised Senator Thorpe for reportedly aiming the slur at Liberal senator Hollie Hughes during a heated debate about people with a disability.
The reported interjection from Senator Thorpe, about 7.25pm on Wednesday, was not picked up by chamber video and audio recordings. But at the time, Coalition Senator Ben Small instantly protested what he said he heard, calling it “the most outrageous statement” directed at Senator Hughes.
“In the scheme of disgusting statements made in this chamber, that surely ranks at the top of them,” he said.
Senator Thorpe retracted her words, claiming she had “got a view of something over there that disturbed me”.
Soon after, she gave a more formal apology and retraction in the chamber.
“I just want to unreservedly take back the comments that I made earlier when interjecting, and I apologise to that senator, Senator Hughes, wholeheartedly,” Senator Thorpe said.
“That won’t happen again. So, I apologise to the senator and also the Senate.”
Senator Hughes, whose son has autism, told Sky News that Senator Thorpe told her “at least I kept my legs shut” during the debate about people with disability
The NSW senator said she accepted Senator Thorpe’s apology, although she described the comment as “beyond disgusting and beyond vile”.
“What I took from it, what a number of my colleagues from across the chamber – Liberal, Labor and crossbenchers – that had I kept my legs shut I wouldn’t have a child with autism,” she said.
“I am dumbfounded that someone would say that, would suggest that.
“When someone invokes someone’s child I think they have crossed a line.”
In a statement on Thursday afternoon, Senator Thorpe denied referring to Senator Hughes’ family.
“Last night I interjected in the Senate using inappropriate language. I regret doing that – and immediately retracted my comments and apologised unreservedly to the Senator,” she said.
“However, I thoroughly reject any suggestion that I directly or indirectly referenced Senator Hughes’ family.
“That characterisation of my interjection is completely untrue, and more importantly, harmful to every disabled person.”
The incident prompted harsh criticism from other MPs and senators, coming as it did just a day after Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins handed down a landmark report into sexual harassment in parliament.
Senator Hughes said she was approached by Labor and crossbench MPs after the remark was made, but she hadn’t spoken to a Greens member.
“I had a Labor senator come to my office after to check in to see how I was and he made the point… if a Liberal senator had said that, if a Labor senator had said that, they’d be an independent by about now,” she said.
Liberal MP Jason Falinski accused Senator Thorpe of “slut-shaming” and “intimidation”.
“It has no place in Australian society – much less in the Australian parliament and especially in the week when the Jenkins report came down,” he told Sydney radio 2GB on Thursday.
“It’s that sort of intimidation, trying to shut people down by shaming them and embarrassing them and it has no place in public life and frankly I don’t think it has a place in the wider Australian community.”
Liberal senator Amanda Stoker told Sky News she was shocked when she heard the remark and Senator Hughes was distraught.
“She (Senator Hughes) is a tough nut, she’s OK, but it’s personal and it’s not nice,” she said.
“At least Senator Thorpe apologised and people accept responsibility for mistakes.
“It does show in a week where we’ve had the Jenkins report talking about the importance of improving culture around this place, it’s important we all lead from the top.”
Labor’s shadow minister for women Tanya Plibersek said if the alleged comment was “true”, she would be shocked.
“I think it’s just inappropriate for anybody, it doesn’t matter who you are, to behave in that way in our Federal Parliament,” she told Sky News.
“We need to make sure that this is a better work environment for the people who work here, but also a Parliament that Australians can be proud of.”
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie also denied hearing the statement, but she welcomed Senator Thorpe’s apology.
“It’s one thing to apologise and one thing to make sure that you’ve learned from your actions that were probably not the correct actions to use,” she said.
“Quite frankly, if we’re going to change the culture up here, when we have the highest office in the country, we need to make sure we’re leading by example.”
Senator Lambie, who was on the receiving end of alleged “dog noises” and growling from a Coalition member earlier in the week, said there was a lack of respect in the Senate, which contributed to inappropriate behaviour.
“You’ve got to watch your behaviour up here and we’re probably not doing that as well as we should be,” she said.
“Whether the new year brings on better behaviour, who knows, although I doubt it because we’re going into an election, which is really unfortunate.”
The Tasmanian senator said she no longer felt “proud” to work at Parliament House and the only way to change behaviour was to have better leadership.
“I haven’t seen good leadership in this country for quite some time,” she said.
Commissioner Jenkins’ Set the Standard report, released on Tuesday morning, found 40 per cent of women working in federal politics have experienced sexual harassment.
It found nearly two-thirds of female politicians have been harassed.