Federal Govt Shelves Taskforce Addressing Responses To Sexual Assault On Campus

A planned federal taskforce to address universities’ woefully inadequate responses to sexual assault and harassment on campus has been abandoned by the new Education Minister Dan Tehan, The Age reports.

Fairfax unearthed correspondence suggesting Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister in the Turnbull Government, was close to announcing the initiative before the August leadership spill, installing Scott Morrison as Liberal leader. In the ensuing cabinet reshuffle, Tehan replaced Birmingham.

The launch of a federal taskforce was spurred on by the release of the AHRC‘s Change the Course report last year, detailing widespread sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities, including degrading initiation rituals at residential colleges. The taskforce would have held universities accountable for the way they deal with assault and harassment allegations on campus.

In February this year, activist groups including Fair Agenda, End Rape on Campus Australia, the National Union of Students and The Hunting Ground Australia Project began to agitate for the establishment of a taskforce to scrutinise institutional responses to sexual violence on campus.

Activists had been working with the former Education Minister’s Office, developing draft terms of reference, approaching a prospective Chair, and discussing a September announcement date.

Sharna Bremner, Director of End Rape on Campus Australia, spoke to the urgent need for government to finally take concrete steps to address the issue of sexual assault on campus, describing it as “critical” that an independent body be able to “provide oversight and accountability on this issue“.

Far too often we have seen universities taking months and months to get back to young women with urgent safety concerns, we’ve seen survivors unable to access affordable, trauma-informed counselling services, and we’ve seen college cultures where demeaning and violent behaviour is normalised.

It’s disgraceful that we’re in a situation where nobody is effectively holding universities accountable for compromising student wellbeing. Even the national higher education regulator doesn’t have the powers to effectively deal with this issue.

The Age write that Tehan has not totally dumped the initiative, but will instead wait for a report from the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, before he potentially chooses to proceed. The report was due to be publicly released in July. It is now expected to be handed to Tehan by the end of the year or early next year, and it is not known when or if it be will be publicly released.

Instead of establishing the taskforce, Tehan has prioritised an inquiry into freedom of speech at universities, triggered by a September incident around Bettina Arndt speaking at the University of Sydney. Arndt calls the allegations of widespread sexual assault on campus a “myth“, and was met by opposition from left-wing activists protesting her inclusion in a student-run event.

Former High Court chief justice Robert French has been asked to review policies to uphold free expression.

Bremner told The Age the minister’s decision as “incredibly disappointing“: “[It is] incredibly disappointing that the minister would act so quickly on something like freedom of speech on campus but would walk away from students who are being raped on campus.

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