The contrast could not be more stark.
The outcome of a year-long investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against a judge of the Federal Circuit Court is yet another reminder that the struggle for gender equality has a long way to go. The investigation found that the judge had engaged in unwelcome sexualised conduct towards two women employed at the Federal Circuit Court in Sydney.
It comes just days after the airing of allegations of sexual harassment against an unidentified cabinet minister in the Morrison government by former Liberal Party politician, Julia Banks. To date, no action has been announced to address these allegations.
The revelations of repeated sexual harassment by Dyson Heydon during his tenure as a High Court judge had a profound effect on the legal profession. One of the most powerful lawyers in the country, a judge who administered the law in the highest court in the land, betrayed his oath by mistreating his young associates. The legal profession has been forced to confront the reality that its deeply hierarchical structure and culture of patronage render courts and tribunals as high risk environments for bullying and sexual harassment. The courts are leading the charge for change with a range of measures to make their workplaces safer including further judicial education and new policies and processes.
In June 2020, I wrote to the Federal Circuit Court on behalf of my client to detail her complaint of sexual harassment by a judge. The response was swift and decisive. Chief Justice Alstergren determined that the complaint was serious and constituted a committee made up of three former judges to investigate it. The committee commenced its investigation promptly. Its final report, delivered in April, upheld many of the allegations made by both my client and another complainant finding that the judge had engaged in inappropriate sexualised conduct which could amount to sexual harassment.
In the interests of transparency, the Committee also recommended that the Court release a public statement about the investigation and its outcome. The Federal Circuit Court has also established a further investigation to determine whether there has been any other inappropriate conduct by the judge.
In complete contrast to the handling of the sexual harassment allegations against judges by both the High Court and now the Federal Circuit Court, the Morrison government is committed to doing nothing about Julia Banks’ allegations. The government continues to inhabit another dimension: an alternative reality that favours secrecy over transparency and obfuscation over accountability. The revelations by Julia Banks of her experience of sexual harassment merit a similarly decisive response from Prime Minister. He should constitute an independent investigation and if Julia Bank’s allegations are upheld, invite any other women with similar complaints to come forward. The outcome of the investigation should be made public.
In the wake of recent scandals about the mistreatment of women in Parliament House, the Prime Minister agreed that Parliament should be “setting the standard”, adding unequivocally that sexual assault is “not only immoral and despicable and even criminal, but … it denies Australians, especially women, not just their personal security but their economic security by not being safe at work.”