Question Time: Physical and Sexual Harassment and Violence

Dr GARLAND (Chisholm) (15:04): My question is to the Minister for Education. What is the Albanese Labor government doing to respond to gender based violence in our universities?

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Education) (15:05): I thank the sensational member for Chisholm for her question. It was a really important question. I ask members to imagine finishing high school, then moving away from home and going to university. You’re living in student accommodation and, one night, you’re assaulted by someone who lives on the same floor as you. You reach out for support from your university, and it doesn’t come. For the last 10 years, Sharna Bremner has been fighting for the rights of students like this. That’s what her organisation, End Rape on Campus, does, and she’s not alone. Camille Schofield and the team at the STOP Campaign, and Renee Carr and the team at Fair Agenda do this too. They are supporting survivors and fighting for change on university campuses and in residential colleges. It’s change that has been a long time coming. One in 20 students report having been sexually assaulted since they started uni, one in six report having been sexually harassed, and one in two students say they haven’t been heard when it happens, and that the response hasn’t been good enough.

This isn’t just a problem in our universities. It exists in all workplaces. It exists here at Parliament House. But universities aren’t just places where people study or where people work. They’re also places where people live, where you could live in the same student accommodation as a person who assaulted you. The Universities Accord called this out in their interim report last year as an area where urgent work was needed, and a lot has happened since then.

A working group made up of Commonwealth, state and territory governments has come together and agreed to act, and last Friday I announced that we will establish an independent National Student Ombudsman. It will have the power to investigate complaints, the power to bring parties together to resolve issues and the power to make recommendations on what actions universities should take. If universities don’t act, the power will be there to hold them to account. As minister, I will also be responsible to report to the parliament on the number and types of complaints and the actions that universities take.

I thank the member for Chisholm, who I know has argued for this. I thank the many members of the crossbench, both in this House and in the Senate, who have advocated for this. Most importantly, I thank Sharna, Renee, Camille, Dr Allison Henry and everyone that they represent, who have fought for this for years. On the weekend, Sharna said, ‘After 50 years of student led advocacy, we’ve finally gotten reform.’ It’s coming now because of Sharna and people like her.

Mr DUTTON (Dickson—Leader of the Opposition) (15:08): on indulgence—I want to commend the minister for the work that he’s undertaken and pledge bipartisan support on this very important issue. We’ve spoken a lot in this place, over the years, about the occurrence of sexual assault in society. We have an absolutely zero tolerance for sexual assault of any person, but particularly in an environment where students are vulnerable because of their confined living arrangements, as the minister rightly pointed out. The fact that universities are engaged in a productive way is to their credit, but a lot of work has to happen, and quickly. The coalition will pledge our support, without condition, to the minister in his endeavours in this regard.

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Prime Minister) (15:08): on indulgence—Firstly, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his comments and for the bipartisan support that I’m sure will come from all members and senators in this house. I acknowledge the grassroots movement, as the minister did, for people who, from my time on campus, have been drawing attention to these issues for many, many decades. I congratulate the minister for acting on this report. It’s something that he has brought up in other forums that we don’t talk about that you’ll find out about in 30 years. He has been very, very strong on this.

The advice is so clear that was has been happening up to now is a real disincentive for women to be able to freely move around our universities and our educational system. Of course, the victims can be impacted for the rest of their lives as well, so this is too late, frankly. We all should have done something before now, but those of us who are in a position to advocate important change will do so now as a result of this report. I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.