A federal Labor government – if elected – has promised to do what the Liberals won’t; establish a major taskforce to investigate the handling of sexual assault complaints by the nation’s universities, with institutions that fail to take appropriate action risking their federal funding.
Deputy Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek announced the election policy this morning after several years of activism by End Rape On Campus Australia, a push which culminated in a major report called The Red Zone, and an investigative series – #TheRedZone campaign* – published on news.com.au earlier this year.
The report and campaign exposed widespread hazing and sexual assault on university campuses during Orientation Week activities and sent shockwaves around the nation.
The Turnbull Government had been preparing to announce its own taskforce under Education Minister Simon Birmingham, but after the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull, incoming Education Minister Dan Tehan axed the policy, opting instead for a review into free speech. Mr Tehan was motivated by mens rights activist, Bettina Arndt whose national university speaking tour claiming there is “no rape culture” in Australian universities was the subject of significant protests in Sydney.
Labor this morning promised to step in to fill the void left by the Turnbull Government’s demise.
“We do need to do better to provide a safe learning environment for our students. It is the responsibility of universities to do that. And if we are elected, we’ll make sure they do,” Ms Plibersek told ABC this morning.
In a written statement, the Shadow Education Minister slammed the Morrison government.
“Dan Tehan thinks a taskforce on university free speech is more important than a taskforce on stopping sexual harassment and assault – that tells you all you need to know about the Liberals’ priorities,” Ms Plibersek said.
“In April this year, I wrote to the education minister urging the Government to establish an independent taskforce on sexual harassment and sexual assault at universities.
“It is disappointing the Liberals have rejected these calls and refused to work with Labor on this important issue. They are turning their backs on vulnerable students, victims, and survivors of sexual assault.”
Revelations from The Red Zone report and News.com.au’s investigation included:
- allegations that hazing and sexual assault may have contributed to the suicide of Stuart Kelly, after spending a single night at Sydney University’s St Paul’s College in 2016;
- students at Newcastle University’s Evatt House engaging in a ‘penis drinking’ hazing ritual where young men had their heads shaved and were required to drink beer off other male student’s genitals;
- an Orientation Week manual produced by students at St Mark’s College in Adelaide featuring poems about female students being raped and sexually tortured;
- a series of rituals at St John’s College at Sydney University involving students setting their pubic hair on fire, degrading women, and circulating nude photos without consent as part of a ‘tradition’ known as “the purge”;
- decades of news reports dating back to at least the 1930’s describing graphic hazing and sexual assault incidents across the country.
The campaign and report led to independent investigations into six universities by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the nation’s university watchdog. But advocates called for a federal taskforce, arguing TEQSA didn’t have sufficient powers to properly investigate allegations of university cover ups.
At the time, End Rape On Campus Australia’s calls were backed by the National Union of Students, The Hunting Ground Australia Project and Fair Agenda.
Sharna Bremner, a founder of End Rape On Campus Australia told news.com.au that rape survivors around the nation would be disappointed the Morrison Government had aligned itself with mens rights activist such as Ms Arndt, “while turning their backs on actual rape survivors”.
Ms Bremner said the university sector “lacks transparency and cannot be trusted to remain open and accountable.” Only eight of the 39 public universities have agreed to an annual release of the numbers of sexual assault complaints received.
Greens Senator for NSW Mehreen Faruqi has also slammed the Federal Minister for Education.
“Minister Tehan would rather stand up for denialists of campus rape culture like Bettina Arndt than for students who have been working in good faith with the Government over the last few years,” Ms Faruqi said in a written statement.
“For the Minister to effectively ditch a taskforce on such an important issue is offensive…. The taskforce is ready and waiting to go, why is the Minister blocking this crucial accountability measure?”
Last year a survey by The Australian Human Rights Commission found that 6.9 per cent of university students had been raped or sexually assaulted across 2015 and 2016 – an average of over 800 students per week across the country.
Of those assaults, slightly under a quarter occurred on campus.
* TheRedZone Campaign was led by Nina Funnell, who is the investigations editor for New Matilda. Ms Funnell is also a founder of End Rape On Campus. You can support her work on New Matilda by kicking in a few bucks here.
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