Australian Speaker of the House steps aside amid sexual harassment allegations

Yesterday, Australian Speaker of the House Peter Slipper stepped aside amid sexual harassment and other allegations.

Slipper, who defected from the Liberal party last year, thereby giving Julia Gillard’s government a razor-thin majority, has denied the allegations made by his former aide in federal court last week. ABC News reports:

James Ashby says he was continually harassed by Mr Slipper since he began working for the speaker in December last year.

He says it is clear the Speaker only hired him to pursue a sexual relationship.

… Mr Ashby – who is gay – says in his first weeks on the job, Mr Slipper requested massages, asked him for graphic details about his sex life and sent him suggestive text messages.

In one of the alleged exchanges quoted by News Limited, Mr Slipper is said to have asked Mr Ashby if he wanted to become “closer”, immediately after allegedly sending a sexually suggestive text message.

Mr Ashby also alleges his employer sent him texts signed with an “x” or an “xxx”.

Mr Ashby claims he always rejected the advances of the 62-year-old, who is married with two children.

News Limited reports that Mr Ashby stayed at Mr Slipper’s Canberra home when he moved to the ACT to take the job at the start of the year.

Mr Ashby’s legal statement says Mr Slipper asked Mr Ashby to shower with the door open. Mr Ashby says he refused to do so, but Mr Slipper never closed the door for his showers.

Once this news broke, Slipper, who was abroad at the time, denied the allegations, quickly made his way back to Australia, and stood aside, saying that he would step back in as Speaker once the matter was dealt with. Prime Minister Gillard issued a statement saying that she believed this was the correct course of action.

And then, the plot thickened a little bit. It seems that almost a decade ago, people in Mr. Slipper’s former party were aware that something wasn’t quite right. “Mr Ashby,” ABC reports, “says officials in John Howard’s government knew as far back as 2003 that Mr Slipper – who was then a Liberal MP – had ‘formed a relationship of a sexual nature with a younger male member of staff’ employed in his office.”

The current leader of the Liberal party, opposition leader Tony Abbott, has said that there was no formal complaint made back then, and that if there had been, it would have been appropriately handled.

Now, there are suggestions that the Howard government, which was in power until late 2007, participated in a cover up of Slipper’s behavior. A former Howard staffer is denying that. And because both parties have placed and kept Slipper in power, they’re both blaming each other for hiring an alleged sexual harasser while trying to explain why they themselves hired an alleged sexual harasser.

I’ve been thinking about how differently sexual harassment allegations tend to play out when the accuser is a man, rather than a woman. I’ve heard a few weak “ha ha, gay dudes” allusions and jokes here and there, but it’s interesting to see that there has so far been no attempt to discredit Ashby, the accuser. I suspect that if Ashby were a woman, folks on both sides would have no problem insinuating that she was exaggerating, or lying, or being manipulated by Slipper’s foes. Instead – and keep in mind, it’s early days yet, so this might change – the focus has been on Slipper’s alleged behaviour, and on the institutions that allegedly allowed it to continue over the course of almost a decade.

Which is great. That’s the way it should be. When someone alleges sexual harassment or any form of sexual violence, the accused should of course be considered innocent until proven otherwise. But the majority of attention and scrutiny should be fixed on the accused, and on any institutions that might have enabled the accused’s alleged behaviour. Rather than asking what the accuser has to gain from claiming harassment, or assuming that they’re lying, or exaggerating, we should focus on the behaviour of the alleged harasser.

If Mr. Ashby’s allegations are true, I’m deeply sorry that this happened to him, and I hope he gets the justice that he deserves. At the same time, I’m grateful to him for going public, so that we can see in action the kind of post-harassment allegation discussion that we all – women included – deserve.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m quite impressed by the media coverage of this. Last gay sex scandal in Australian politics (the married NSW cabinet member caught coming out of a “sauna”), the headlines screamed “GAY sex scandal,” this time they’re just talking about harassment. Does anyone else get that impression?

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