Chloe Clinton posted on Instagram as soon as she heard about the loophole in Australia’s sex discrimination act: Politicians and judges in Australia, where she lives, are exempt from laws against workplace sexual harassment. The sex discrimination act, passed in 1984, only covers “employers” and “employees,” she learned. Because politicians and judges are technically neither, they cannot be held accountable if someone working in their office files a complaint.
Clinton’s friends immediately responded to her Instagram Story:
“What the heck?”
“How is this something that’s been allowed?”
“This is disgusting.”
Clinton, 19, said she couldn’t stop thinking about the law — and why, for 37 years, no one had questioned it.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on April 8 that politicians and judges will no longer be exempt from sexual harassment complaints, promising to overhaul the country’s sex discrimination act in the coming months. The announcement appears to be a direct result of recent protests, known as the March 4 Justice movement, that erupted in cities and towns across Australia on March 15, when tens of thousands of people gathered in response to allegations of sexual harassment in the Australian parliament. At the protests, and in media coverage that followed, many Australians heard about the loophole for the first time.
The exemption for politicians and judges was probably just an oversight in the drafting of the sex discrimination act, said Beth Gaze, a professor at Melbourne Law School who studies equality and discrimination law. In all likelihood, she said, “it was never intended to be a loophole. It’s just that no one really thought about this situation.” (Politicians and judges can still face prosecution for sexual assault.)
Still, Gaze said, it is significant that the sexual harassment exemption stuck around for so long, despite multiple government reviews of the sex discrimination act. In a March 2020 report, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins urged parliament to address the exemption for judges and politicians.
“Normally the government would get a report like that, think it over for a little while,” and then act, Gaze said. “But this one went to the attorney general, and nothing happened.”
The attorney general at the time was Christian Porter, who has been accused of raping a 16-year-old at a high school debating competition in 1988. Those allegations, which Porter has denied, surfaced in March, after the alleged victim committed suicide in 2020. Porter was removed as attorney general later that month in a cabinet reshuffle. He is now responsible for science and technology.
While there may have been some confidential complaints handled internally, Gaze said, she knows of no Australian politician or judge who has ever faced legal repercussions for sexual harassment at work.
The loophole is not widely known in Australia, Gaze said. More people started talking about the exemption after allegations surfaced against several high-profile government and judicial officials, she added. Tensions came to a head in February, when former government staffer Brittany Higgins said in a television interview that she was raped by a former colleague on parliament grounds in March 2019, prompting at least three other women to share similar stories involving the same man, a Liberal Party employee — allegations that led to the nationwide protests in March.
All this has significantly impacted Morrison’s approval ratings among women, which have dropped 16 points since Higgins came forward, according to a poll conducted by The Guardian. Morrison’s approval ratings among men have not changed.
When Saskia Harazim-Anderssen first heard about the exemption for politicians and judges, she said, it was “absolutely shocking.” A 21-year-old social justice major at a university in Gold Coast, Australia, Harazim-Anderssen stays on top of political and gender issues, co-hosting a feminist podcast called “Revolting Women.” Still, she said, she had never heard of the loophole.
“The people who hold the utmost power in our society have these laws that protect them. If they aren’t held accountable … what does that say to my friends who have been sexually assaulted?” Harazim-Anderssen asked.
The government perpetuates the idea that Australia is an “egalitarian society,” Harazim-Anderssen said. When you question the treatment of women, she added, you are reminded that you live in “one of the best, most equal countries in the world.”
After the March 4 Justice protests, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it a “triumph” that protesters were not “met with bullets,” as they would be in countries “not far from here.”
The protests were far larger than expected. When Clinton arrived at the protest in Adelaide, she said, she was stunned by the number of people in the crowd. Marching with two friends, Clinton wore a black tank top, rolled up to look like a bra, and an open sweater, so people could see what she had written with a red marker across her chest and stomach: “Still Not Asking For It.”
“I felt a really strong sense of unity,” she said, as she chanted in the city’s central square with thousands of other people. “You could tell everyone was there for a reason.”
At a different protest, an hour north of Sydney, Astrid Serpentine left the protest feeling “disheartened,” she said. As the protesters sang a song about female empowerment, forming a heart shape with their hands, she said, she struggled to see how this show of support would change anything. Where Serpentine lives, on Australia’s central coast, there is a strong “larrikin” culture, which she describes as a tendency to turn everything into a joke or a line of banter, even allegations of sexual harassment.
“It’s like, ‘have a joke, have a laugh,’” said Serpentine, 42. “He’s your uncle, that’s just how he is.”
At the protest, Serpentine wanted to see more anger about what’s happening in parliament, she said. She wished she would have brought her drums along, she said, so she could have encouraged women to “yell and scream and throw their bodies about” while she pounded out an angry rhythm.
“There was a real opportunity for women to rage,” Serpentine said.
Morrison has said that he expects to amend the law, ending the loophole, by the end of June. Australians should not celebrate that announcement, Serpentine said.
“It sounds like it should just be a given, doesn’t it?” she said. “It seems like a performative act, like, ‘Look how great it is that we’re doing this.’”
Officials shouldn’t take credit for the change, she said — because the change never should have been necessary.