7 December 2020

"The complaint process failed me," new MLA opens up about sexual harassment

| Dominic Giannini
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Dr Marisa Paterson told the Legislative Assembly about her experience with sexual harassment. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Dr Marisa Paterson used her maiden speech in the Legislative Assembly to open up about her experience with sexual harassment from a prominent New Zealand professor while working at the Australian National University (ANU), saying that “the complaint process failed everyone”.

Four days before nominating to run as a Labor candidate for Murrumbidgee in August 2019, Dr Paterson submitted a formal complaint about the professor to ANU, detailing two years of sexual harassment, stalking and bullying.

At the time, he was also pro-vice-chancellor at one of New Zealand’s leading universities.

“My situation started as a mentor-type relationship. He was a distinguished leader nearing the end of his career, and I was just starting mine,” she said.

“My marriage had ended, and I was on my own with three very young children. I very acutely felt the pressure of my income, being the only income [earner].

“I felt that making a formal complaint directly jeopardised my job and my career prospects.”

Dr Paterson collected hundreds of pages of emails and texts and presented them in her complaint. The university then passed on the complaint to the Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

“There was no investigation into what happened, and no disciplinary action was taken,” Dr Paterson said.

“This man continued to hold a position of power over my career, and now that I had made the formal complaint – that felt even more threatening.

“I had no protection and no justice.”

READ ALSO Liberal MLA alleges Heydon also sexually harassed her in 2013

The professor, several senior staff and executives all resigned after Dr Paterson’s story was broken by New Zealand news website Stuff. An external review of AUT is also being conducted.

But Dr Paterson says her experience is indicative of what many women experience every day, including in federal Parliament.

“Men in powerful positions will ultimately work to protect each other – regardless of the cost to other people, and ultimately, the enormous reputational cost to their institution or organisation,” she said.

“Sexual harassment is an abuse of power, a corruption of power, and it is largely gender-based.

“It is my right, my human right, to be able to go to work and be safe. My personal wellbeing, my mental health and my career should not suffer because I won’t engage with someone sexually.”

She decided to tell the story in her maiden speech to the ACT Legislative Assembly on Thursday (3 December) to lament that she was now in a position to be able to stand up for herself, and others, after 37 years.

“I can do that now which means I can confidently say to the people of Murrumbidgee and Canberra, I can stand up for you. I can fight for you,” she said.

“The reason I choose to tell this story today is that I feel it is important in demonstrating to the community what type of leader I will be.

“These experiences I have described are some of what I have seen along the way, these experiences form my vision.”

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