Australian senator accuses male colleague of sexual assault

Conservative senator David Van suspended by party after Lidia Thorpe alleged he ‘harassed’ and ‘sexually assaulted’ her.

Lidia Thorpe
Senator Lidia Thorpe accused fellow senator of sexual assault, a claim he rejected [File: Martin Ollman/Getty Images]

A prominent Australian politician – in comments she initially withdrew under threat of parliamentary sanction – has alleged she was “harassed” and “sexually assaulted” by a fellow senator, who vehemently denied the allegations.

Speaking in the Senate on Wednesday, independent Lidia Thorpe objected to conservative senator David Van addressing politicians about rape allegations involving another man that were made by former parliamentary staffer Brittany Higgins.

In a tearful Senate address, Thorpe said she had been subjected to “sexual comments”, cornered in a stairwell, “inappropriately touched” and “propositioned” by “powerful men”.

She accused a fellow senator of “sexually assaulting” her, before being forced to withdraw the remark under threat of parliamentary sanction.

On Thursday, Thorpe restated the core of her allegations against Van, who said he was “shattered and battered” by the allegations, and that they were “utterly untrue.”

Van’s Liberal Party suspended him Thursday over the allegations.

Thorpe made her accusations on Wednesday by interjecting while Van was speaking. After rising to her feet, she told a shocked chamber: “I’m feeling really uncomfortable when a perpetrator is speaking”.

Asked to retract the statement – protected from Australia’s severe defamation laws by parliamentary privilege – Thorpe refused.

“I can’t, because this person harassed me, sexually assaulted me,” she said. “To have him talking about this today is an absolute disgrace.”

Sexual harassment, bullying widespread

A 2021 government-backed inquiry found that sexual harassment and bullying were widespread in Australia’s parliament, affecting both politicians and staff.

One in three people working in parliament at the time said they “have experienced some form of sexual harassment while working there”.

Since 2021, Australian politics has been roiled by high-profile allegations of assault and harassment inside parliament.

At that time, former political aide Higgins alleged that a fellow conservative staffer raped her on a couch in a cabinet minister’s parliamentary office following a night of heavy drinking in March 2019.

The man in question has sued multiple journalists for reporting on the case and threatened to sue his accuser. He denied the allegations and in court pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual intercourse without consent.

Five separate investigations followed, collectively delivering a scathing indictment on the frequently sexist nature of Australian politics.

The case sparked nationwide protests and a court case that was eventually judged to be a mistrial and not retried because of the risk to Higgins’ mental health.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies