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The mishandling of a sexual assault allegation is part of a series of concerns about the culture and conduct of the progressive party. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Greens fail on sexual assault allegation

Election material at the ACT Greens campaign launch for Brindabella, in 2016, including “I only date boys who vote Green” badges.
Credit: FACEBOOK

The Greens are in a state of crisis following what is described as the gross mishandling of an alleged sexual assault of a campaign volunteer on the night of last year’s federal election. The alleged assault was committed by another volunteer, and has been reported to the Australian Federal Police.

The allegation was raised with senior campaign staff of the ACT Greens, and by the complainant herself, but sources allege that those staff failed their responsibilities. These failures include withholding the allegation from colleagues, failing to properly protect the complainant, poorly defined responsibilities for the party’s Election Campaign Team, and interference with an independent campaign review which looked, in part, at the handling of the allegation.  It follows an earlier allegation of rape by a party member being mishandled by the New South Wales party.

Former ACT party members have also alleged bullying and the serious mismanagement of a volunteer that was later categorised as a “critical incident” and involved sustained self-harm and the admission of that volunteer to a mental health ward.

It is understood that the sexual assault allegation – and concerns about the party’s culture – were raised with the staff of multiple federal parliamentary Greens. The federal Greens later ordered state organisations to review their sexual harassment policies.

In the past 12 months former party members have sought justice, resolution or compensation through multiple external agencies: police, lawyers, WorkSafe, the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Human Rights Commission. WorkSafe ACT is currently investigating
a complaint.

In an email sent on November 30 last year, then ACT Greens secretary Rick Collins – who is now the party’s deputy convenor – wrote to a colleague: “You’ve mentioned a number of incidents that pose huge institutional risks that, as one of the few people actually legally responsible to the ACT Government for any failure to meet due diligence, I would have liked to have been made aware of. This is not a criticism of you, but of the [office bearers] involved in the [Election Campaign Team] or that were aware of the issues who should have been accountable to the others [office bearers], and more broadly, to the party.

“I’m convinced that the [Election Campaign Team] cannot ever function as opaquely as it did in the last election … The way [information was withheld] was completely inappropriate. If a volunteer died because of the way we mishandled their mental health, under [Work Health and Safety] legislation, an [office bearer] could go to prison. Being a volunteer organisation can never be an excuse for poor standards – ethically or legally.”

Last year, an external consultant was commissioned to review the ACT Greens campaign for the territory’s October 15 election. The result was a protected report – seen by The Saturday Paper – finalised in February this year and entitled “Independent Review of the ACT Greens 2016 campaigns”. Documents seen by this paper cast doubt on its independence, and reveal staff sought to modify it.

Senior staff members reviewed the report before it was published and suggested edits. One suggestion regarded the following paragraph: “Based on the information shared at the debrief and interviews in respect of three critical incidents raised within the party throughout the course of the campaign, it is suggested that the following is required: that the party create a critical incident and serious matter register that records in general terms any critical incident or matter that might happen in the party.”

The suggestion was that reference to the “three critical incidents” be removed.

One of those critical incidents was the alleged sexual assault on July 2. Another involved the inadequate management of the volunteer who was self-harming.

The line suggested for removal survived, but only glancing references are made throughout the report to the three critical incidents.

Another suggested edit reads: “Reference to people in leadership positions considering people who spoke up about issues ‘difficult’ is really damning and a very serious thing to have in the report. I think it would be worth having a conversation with [the report’s author] about what this refers to, to ensure there is shared understanding of what was discussed.”

Elsewhere, it was asked that the report’s author include the following line: “The reviewer understands that steps have been taken to improve party processes and address these issues.”

The ACT Greens convenor, Michael Mazengarb, says no changes were made to the report before it was published. He told The Saturday Paper: “No edits were made to the Independent Review Report by members of the party as provided by the independent reviewer, nor was the independent reviewer asked to make any changes to the report as provided by her to the party.”

The final report was zealously guarded by the party to prevent its leaking. ACT Greens members, entitled by their membership to read the document, had to make an appointment and read it in central office. Despite attempts to alter it, the report made damning pronouncements on the party’s health. Its introduction states: “It is important to mention that a small number of serious matters, namely three to the reviewer’s knowledge, were raised and referred to many times throughout the interviews with multiple interviewees. What would appear to be the nature of the responses to these matters, and for some of them, how the matter was able to develop, are examples of what can eventuate if the problematic aspects of the party’s culture are not transformed or dealt with.”

Elsewhere, the report says that it is “interesting to note that individuals in key positions of power expressed that being in decision-making roles found it scary to make decisions and be in leadership positions”.

The report accords with documents The Saturday Paper has seen, and interviews with multiple Greens sources, that this was an organisation whose values were compromised by its composition – inexperienced volunteers working within vague or non-existent professional frameworks. It was also, like all political parties, defined by cliques, personalities and informal concentrations of power.

Elsewhere, the report states: “In relation to issues that arose throughout the campaign, minor through to critical, it appears that at times a more considered and appropriate response from people in leadership positions was required. Furthermore, it seems that an appropriate response is still required for some matters.

“Of all the issues raised in the course of this review, three specific incidents appear to remain unresolved and need particular attention…”

The Saturday Paper has spoken with a number of former Greens members who have left the party because of these issues. Luke Stickels, who has worked on seven Greens campaigns in five years, and had a senior role with the ACT Greens in 2016, tells me he has resigned from the party “in disgust”.

“A small group of members who aren’t careerists, who don’t want to be candidates, tried to do the right thing by supporting an incredible young woman against a dominant power that encouraged everyone else to look away,” Stickels says. “We have been utterly scapegoated by the majority of members too willing to favour peace over justice, protect the Greens brand at any cost, and shoot the messenger when trouble comes around.

“I don’t know how to interpret the motivations of these so-called progressives who allegedly want the world to be a better place, but somehow failed to defend the rights of a young woman and actively sought to suppress her, when she unknowingly placed herself in serious danger by volunteering for the ACT Greens. Are they cowards? Do they need years of therapy to treat their conflict avoidance? Or are they pretenders and liars, conniving to get the look right, without any substance or ethical foundation?”

Another Greens source, who has also now left the party, told me: “The reason I’m talking is that I’ve watched the party I cared for do nothing. Not apologise. Maybe it’s a pride thing. But nothing’s changing… I think it was intentional that reference to three critical incidents were vague and overlooked. It’s pathetic.”

Concerns have been raised about the culture more broadly within the party, which has employed electoral material including badges that read “I only date boys who vote Green”. One former Greens member said: “I was disgusted with the general misogyny. There was a brazen level of inappropriate behaviour.”

In a letter to Stickels late last year, the Election Campaign Team admitted that delays had occurred in responding to complaints and that “there is more the party can and should do to protect people’s wellbeing if they have mental health concerns that they have made the party aware of”.

But in the letter, the campaign team refuted that it had seriously mishandled the allegations, and said it had listened to the complainant and honoured her specific requests for action. “The Campaign Manager proactively reached out to the volunteer who was the subject of the alleged sexual harassment at the end of July… The Campaign Manager… subsequently asked that individual what they wanted the party to do in response to the alleged incident. The individual said that they did not want to volunteer with the person who was alleged [sic] involved in the incident. The Campaign Manager gave assurances to the effect that the party would support the individual in whatever action they wished to take.

“The [Election Campaign Team] is confident that given the information that was provided, the appropriate people took appropriate action, following agreed processes, legal requirements and their good judgement in response to the information they were given.”

Another source has disputed this with The Saturday Paper. Multiple sources have said that the alleged perpetrator continued to attend Greens social events.

The alleged victim said she was made to feel like a “problem” by the party. She said she wasn’t “treated like a real person at all, just a roadblock” and that she wanted the party to apologise.

“I didn’t go to police straight away, right off the bat, because I wasn’t really handling the situation and I was really anxious,” she told the ABC.

“After that initial shock wore off I thought, there was an election campaign happening, and I knew it was a potential media risk for the party. And I didn’t want anyone to suffer because of what had happened.

“I didn’t feel like it was fair to put these people’s careers and all these volunteers working towards something on the line because of it.”

Michael Mazengarb told The Saturday Paper via email that: “The ACT Greens were made aware of a serious incident in July last year. This allegation was responded to immediately by the ACT Greens Campaign Manager, who met with the woman concerned to offer support and find out what steps they wanted the party to take.

“As a result, the alleged perpetrator of the incident was immediately stood down from volunteer responsibilities and has not volunteered with the party since. The ACT Greens Office Bearers have continued to reach out to the woman concerned since that time, and reiterate our commitment to support her [in] any further action she may wish to take.

“Since then, the ACT Greens sought advice, and commenced work, on developing best practice policies and procedures within our party to make sure our volunteers and staff are supported in their day to day participation in the party, and if any critical incidents arise.

“As part of the review process we engaged an external facilitator to produce an Independent Review of the campaign and provide recommendations to strengthen our party and improve our processes to ensure that our members and supporters have the best possible experience when engaging with the ACT Greens.

“The findings and recommendations that made up the independent review were made available to party members in the format provided by the contracted external evaluator … The content of the report was the sole discretion of the independent reviewer. The ACT Greens Office Bearers have accepted all of the recommendations from the Review and have begun to implement many of them.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 15, 2017 as "Greens fail on sexual assault". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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