Two Greek Australian politicians in South Australia are doing all they can to better women’s lives by tackling sexual harassment and equal opportunity rights head on.
The two campaigners – SA Best MP Connie Bonaros and Labor MP, Irene Pnevmatikos – have played a vital role in the introduction of a new code of conduct in an attempt to improve the culture within South Australia’s Parliament.
The review of Harassment in the South Australian Parliament Workplace, undertaken by the South Australian Equal Opportunity Commission, was the result of a damning 166-page report released by the Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner, Emily Strickland earlier this month.
Ms Strickland found sexual harassment was prevalent in Parliament, with eight people reporting being victims of sexual harassment by MPs or their staff in the past five years.
Behaviours reported include indecent exposure, wandering hands “really far up” skirts, unwelcome touching, repeated requests or pressure for sex, sexual gestures and sexually explicit texts and emails.
More than a quarter of survey respondents reported they had experienced sexual harassment in the parliamentary workplace.
Following the report, Ms Strickland made 16 recommendations to address the problems, including training for MPs and staff, a new centralised parliamentary human resources division, and a code of conduct for MPs.
Attorney-General and Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman moved to establish a parliamentary committee to closely examine the report and its 16 recommendations.
Ms Bonaros, whose complaint against now-independent MP Sam Duluk was the one that initiated the commissioner’s review, said this was “a long time coming” revealing sexual and discriminatory harassment not only exists in the state’s lawmaking headquarters but is “disturbing” and “prevalent”.
“I’m really infuriated, and deeply saddened by the stories and the accounts that we’ve heard from the Commissioner, but that doesn’t mean I am surprised. We know this is happening. We have known for a long time and for some reason we pretend that it is not happening. As women we are taught to stay head down and work hard, ignore everything that happens around us and never speak up,” Ms Bonaros told Neos Kosmos, while calling all members of parliament to take responsibility for the existing outdated workplace culture that “needs to change now”.
“I feel we have let those victims down by sweeping everything under the carpet for as long as we have. The findings made it clear Parliament needed to take responsibility for its outdated workplace culture,” said the SA Best MP, adding that she is extremely sorry for the fact that there were no systems in place to support and protect those women who are not to be blamed for “wandering hands, indecent exposure and assault.”
“Until ‘this’ changes,” Ms Bonaros said, “women will continue to feel unsafe, will be reluctant to speak up and report because the personal cost to their own health and wellbeing, that of their families, and their careers is just too high.”
Ms Pnevmatikos is another Labor MP who has also supported the report and recommendations.
“Parliament is a complex workplace. However, this parliament cannot be above the law. The report clearly outlined that there is a culture of unacceptable behaviour within this workplace which has the effect of working to the detriment of women employees in this workplace, whether they be Members, staffers, clerks, parliamentary service officers, cleaners, catering staff,” she said.
“There are some fundamental gaps in policy, training and complaints practices that, if addressed, will make a significant difference in preventing and responding to harassment.”
The two women said a centralised human resources department was long overdue.
“The fact that any workplace doesn’t have an HR unit in place in line with what the commissioner has outlined is simply outdated. We are operating in an archaic, outdated system based on conventions of a bygone era,” Ms Bonaros said, also calling out her colleagues “in denial” to wake up to themselves and change their minds.
The review passed with support from Premier Steven Marshall.
“Every single person in South Australia should feel safe and respected in the workplace, but we here in the South Australian Parliament should be modelling the highest of standards,” Mr Marshall said.
“I think it is time for us to make sure that we are a model for all of South Australia.”
Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said it was time State Parliament aligned with community expectations of behaviour adding that the South Australian community expects there to be a code of conduct for this workplace, as there is for theirs.
Long-serving MPs, Deputy Labor leader Susan Close and Greens MLC Tammy Franks, said the findings, although upsetting, were not surprising.
“While we remain complacent, this behaviour continues to ruin lives,” concluded Ms Pnevmatikos.