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Australian senator claims sexual assault in Parliament

Independent Lidia Thorpe says Parliament 'is not a safe place for women'.

3 minute read
This screen grab taken from video released by the Parliament of Australia on June 15 shows independent senator Lidia Thorpe addressing the Senate in Canberra. Photo: AFP
This screen grab taken from video released by the Parliament of Australia on June 15 shows independent senator Lidia Thorpe addressing the Senate in Canberra. Photo: AFP

An Australian lawmaker on Thursday alleged she was sexually "assaulted" by a fellow senator in Parliament House, stating the building was "not a safe place" for women to work.

In a tearful Senate address, independent Lidia Thorpe said she had been subjected to "sexual comments", cornered in a stairwell, "inappropriately touched" and "propositioned" by "powerful men".

Parliament, she said, "is not a safe place for women".

Thorpe on Wednesday accused a fellow senator of "sexually assaulting" her, before being forced to withdraw the remark under threat of parliamentary sanction.

But on Thursday, Thorpe restated the core of her allegations against conservative David Van, who has strenuously denied the claims.

A visibly emotional Van responded in Parliament, describing the allegations as "scandalous" and "concocted" before calling for an investigation.

With hands trembling as he read from a printed statement, Van accused Thorpe of "bringing the Senate into disrepute" and "cowering under the umbrella of parliamentary privilege".

Van's Liberal Party suspended him on Thursday over the claims, which have upended Canberra politics and rekindled accusations that Australia's crucible of democracy is also a bastion of sexism and misogyny.

In an address to the Senate, Thorpe acknowledged that "sexual assault" meant different things to different people, and went on to describe her experiences in the corridors of power.

"What I experienced was being followed, aggressively propositioned and inappropriately touched," she said.

In 2021, Van was forced to move his parliamentary office away from Thorpe's after an unspecified complaint, both senators have acknowledged.

Thorpe told fellow lawmakers she "was afraid to walk out of the office door. I would open the door slightly and check the coast was clear before stepping out".

"It was to the degree that I had to be accompanied by someone whenever I walked inside this building," she added.

"I know there are others that have experienced similar things and have not come forward in the interests of their careers."

While the allegations were protected from Australia's severe defamation laws, Thorpe said that Van had engaged lawyers in the matter.

Widespread sexual harassment 

Since 2021, Australian politics has been roiled by high-profile allegations of assault and harassment inside parliament.

Former political aide Brittany Higgins alleged that a fellow conservative staffer raped her on a couch in a Cabinet minister's parliamentary office following a night of heavy drinking in March 2019.

Five separate investigations followed, collectively delivering a scathing indictment on the frequently sexist nature of Australian politics.

One government-backed inquiry found that sexual harassment and bullying were widespread in parliament, affecting both lawmakers and staff.

One in three people working in Parliament at the time said they "have experienced some form of sexual harassment while working there".

That included 63% of the country's female parliamentarians.

The Higgins case sparked national protests and a high-profile court case that ended in a mistrial.

It was not retried because prosecutors feared the strain it would put on Higgins's mental health.

The man in question has sued multiple journalists for reporting on the allegations and threatened to sue his accuser.

He has denied the allegations, and in court pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual intercourse without consent.

The controversy has reignited in recent weeks, after opposition conservatives leapt on a series of leaked text messages to accuse the now centre-left government of politicising the issue.