SYDNEY, Australia — An Australian senator filed a defamation suit on Wednesday against a fellow lawmaker who she says made a sexist remark to her on the Senate floor during a debate about violence against women.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, a Greens Party member who was once the youngest woman elected to Parliament, has said that Senator David Leyonhjelm, a Liberal Democrat, told her to “stop shagging men” during a June debate on relaxing import restrictions for pepper spray, a change that advocates say would allow women to better protect themselves.
Mr. Leyonhjelm has acknowledged making the remark.
“The defamatory statements Senator Leyonhjelm made and continues to make are an attack on my character, and have done considerable harm to me and my family,” Ms. Hanson-Young said in a statement, released soon after filing her lawsuit with the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney.
“I’m calling this out because it is wrong,” Ms. Hanson-Young said. “No woman, whether she be working behind a bar, in an office or in the Parliament, deserves to be treated this way, and it needs to stop.”
Since Ms. Hanson-Young first publicized Mr. Leyonhjelm’s comment, the two lawmakers have engaged in an increasingly acrimonious war of words.
“That Senator Hanson-Young took offense from my comments is an issue for her, not me,” Mr. Leyonhjelm told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in June. “However, I am prepared to rephrase my comments. I strongly urge Senator Hanson-Young to continue shagging men as she pleases.”
The suit contends that Mr. Leyonhjelm defamed Ms. Hanson-Young by doubling down on his comment in a series of news interviews. In those interviews, according to the complaint, Mr. Leyonhjelm suggested that Ms. Hanson-Young was a “hypocrite” and “misandrist” because she attacked men in public but had sex with them in private.
Mr. Leyonhjelm said the suit was baseless and he was willing to go to court to fight it.
“I confirm my lawyers have received the statement of claim sent on behalf of Senator Hanson-Young and I have received advice that her claims are without merit,” he said in a statement. “I will be defending these claims strenuously in the Federal Court and will be seeking costs accordingly.”
The flap has again raised questions about a culture of sexual harassment and scandal in Canberra, the capital, and the lawsuit comes on the heels of a newly announced national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment.
In February, Barnaby Joyce was forced to step down as deputy prime minister after admitting to an affair with a staff member, prompting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to ban members of Parliament from having sex with their subordinates.
“Parliament House has a culture of dirty secrets,” Ms. Hanson-Young said in a recent interview by way of explaining her motivation for the lawsuit. “I thought if I ignore this, it’s never going to stop.”
Ms. Hanson-Young told the Senate in June, soon after Mr. Leyonhjelm made his comment, that she had walked over to the senator and confronted him about it. “Shocked, I told him that he was a creep,” she said.
Mr. Leyonhjelm said the remark was in response to Ms. Hanson-Young saying “something along the lines of all men being rapists.”
Mr. Leyonhjelm recently used parliamentary resources to determine the number of times Ms. Hanson-Young has been ordered to withdraw comments she had made about other politicians. According to one government report, she has been asked to retract remarks 26 times since 2012, including instances where she called her fellow lawmakers “racist,” “misogynistic” and “corrupt.”
Mr. Leyonhjelm has been asked only to withdraw a comment once, the remark he directed at Ms. Hanson-Young, according to the report.
Both politicians, and their parties, have exploited the flap as a fund-raising opportunity. Ms. Hanson-Young has raised more than 58,000 Australian dollars, or $43,000, to date to pay her legal costs. The Liberal Democrats, a small, libertarian-leaning party, brought in more than 23,000 Australian dollars through a fund-raising campaign set up in response to the controversy, asking for help to fight what they call the Greens Party’s “toxic unhinged ideology.”
Mr. Turnbull and Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition Labor Party, have condemned Mr. Leyonhjelm’s “offensive remarks.”
Ms. Hanson-Young’s lawsuit comes just as lawmakers are to begin a national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment, trumpeted as the most comprehensive investigation of its kind anywhere in the world. To be conducted over 12 months, it is likely to result in the implementation of sweeping new standards and the introduction of new criminal laws.
More than 20 percent of Australians over 15 report having experienced sexual harassment at work, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Female members and employees of Parliament have said they, too, are victims of harassment in the workplace.
“Even some of the worst Hillary Clinton stuff I don’t think has quite got the coarse nature of the discourse here about women,” Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University in Queensland, said of how female politicians are treated in Australia. “It’s really quite brutal. It feels like there are no boundaries anymore.”
Fewer than a third of Australian lawmakers are women, and some experts said the controversy over Mr. Leyonhjelm’s remarks was likely to deter more women from entering politics.
When discussing sexism in Australian politics, experts often cite Julia Gillard, who after becoming Australia’s first female prime minister in 2010 was the subject of vitriolic attack campaigns.
A prominent Australian radio commentator suggested that Ms. Gillard be “put into a chaff bag and thrown into the sea.” After her father died, the same commentator, Alan Jones, said her father had “died of shame.”
In 2011, Tony Abbott, then the opposition leader, spoke at a rally in front of a “ditch the witch” poster. Ms. Gillard later said the incident should have ended his career, but Mr. Abbott went on to become prime minister.
“This national inquiry provides the perfect opportunity for women in all workplaces to talk about their experience,” said Kelly O’Dwyer, Australia’s minister for women. “Sexual harassment must never be tolerated in any workplace, whether it’s the nation’s Parliament or whether it’s on the shop front floor.”
Orignially published in NYT.