Melbourne City Council has been embroiled in scandal for the last couple of months following a series of sexual harassment and assault allegations made against Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. In early February Doyle quit in disgrace.
Doyle’s former political ally, Councillor Tessa Sullivan, was the first woman to come forward. It seems she felt that she could no longer tolerate working in such a toxic environment and, after making a formal complaint to council, resigned herself. More women have since come forward to make similar complaints about Doyle’s history of sexual harassment and assault.
The women, including Greens Councillor Cathy Oke, have detailed incidents that show a pattern of inappropriate behaviour from Doyle. The allegations include making lewd remarks and unwanted physical advances such as touching women’s legs, breasts, and attempting to kiss them. One of the common themes appears to be that Doyle targets women when they are unable to leave, whether it be at the table at a gala dinner, in his car or in an elevator.
A formal Council investigation was launched into the allegations, and the findings were given to Doyle at the start of February. Upon reading the report Doyle retreated to hospital and has refused to respond in any way. This is strange behaviour from someone who continues to deny any wrongdoing. Instead, he is trying to have the report suppressed. Nobody else has seen the report, including the alleged victims.
Unfortunately, the news of Doyle’s alleged misconduct is not particularly surprising. Many women have direct experience with men in powerful positions getting away with sexual harassment and assault. In the past, these allegations wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Former councillor Jackie Watts has attested to this. When she made a complaint about Doyle’s bullying behaviour six years ago, nothing was done. It’s a step forward that men such as Doyle are now starting to experience some repercussions for their actions.
The allegations against Doyle come on the back of the global #MeToo movement. We are seeing a shift in attitudes against the culture of women staying quiet and putting up with unwanted advances. Behaviour that used to be dismissed as “men behaving badly” or “boys being boys” is now starting to be acknowledged for what it is – sexual harassment and assault. Women are increasingly feeling more confident to come forward, but we still have a long way to go.
Right now, it is mainly high-profile men who are being exposed as serial harassers. We have seen the fall out since the Harvey Weinstein revelations last year, with a slew of Hollywood men being exposed as predators. The focus, however, has remained on those who are in the public eye. Unfortunately, there are many harassers also lurking behind the scenes.
Sexual harassment and assault are symptoms of a deeply unequal society that treats women as second-class citizens. Sexism and violence against women is an intrinsic part of a system that puts profit before people. These issues flow directly from capitalism. They are not just some accidental by-product.
Ordinary working women have countless stories of leering bosses, colleagues and customers who make sleazy remarks, who put their hands on us without our consent, and much worse. In industries such as retail and hospitality, this is an all too common workplace hazard.
With this in mind, trade unions should be putting themselves at the fore of the #MeToo movement. Some unions have already launched online campaigns. This is a welcome start but it is crucial that we go further if we want to have a real impact.
Unions must help build a mass movement with clear demands. In addition to taking to the streets, we need to be organised in our workplaces. An organised movement is necessary if we want to win reforms that can make it easier to report sexual harassment and to protect victims from retribution. Industrial action should be used to send non-compliant employers a strong message.
Women still earn roughly 15% less than men, and tend to work in lower-paid, casualised jobs. It’s therefore essential that the fight against sexual harassment and assault is linked to the fight for improved wages and conditions.
Socialists couple the fight for improvements in the here and now to the fight to change society as a whole. We want to put an end to predatory capitalism, and build a society based on real equality and liberation for all.
By Kat Galea