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Kevin Rudd has criticised Scott Morrison and News Corp over the handling of sexual assault allegations as he called for an end to “the age of male sexual entitlement”.
The former prime minister said it was time to “change this toxic culture” in Australia’s parliament, and he hoped the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, who is leading a review of its workplace culture, would also hold inquiries into national media organisations and other corporations.
“Let the sunshine in,” Rudd told the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday.
“The uncomfortable truth for all Australian men is the game is now up. The age of male sexual entitlement is over. Australian women must be safe in all workplaces – led by the parliament itself.
“Failure to do so will leave a stench over the public standing of an institution which remains central to our democracy – the parliament.”
Rudd’s speech comes amid intense scrutiny of the government’s handling of allegations of rape and sexual assault in politics.
They have included allegations by a former government staffer, Brittany Higgins, that she was raped by a more senior employee in the office of the then defence industry minister, Linda Reynolds, in 2019. The attorney general, Christian Porter, has denied allegations he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988, when he was 17.
Rudd said he hoped the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, would “pull no punches in the report she produces and the recommendations she makes” to improve parliament’s culture.
It was a time for action, he said, arguing that the prime minister and his media minders should not be able to shift the conversation to other issues.
“Talk about it now we must,” Rudd said. “Beyond talk, we must act to change this toxic culture.
“Whatever Mr Morrison and his media minders may wish, it’s clear the women of Australia rightfully will not stand idly by while men seek to push this under the carpet and the government encourages us simply to ‘move on’.
“Let me be plain: sexual harassment and sexual assault in the parliament are an abuse of power, position and authority by my gender, the male gender, by men.
“It’s not a problem caused by women, or by the clothes they wear, or how much they have had to drink. It’s a problem caused by men.”
Rudd said it would be appropriate for the government to launch a short, independent judicial inquiry to look at the Porter allegations with focused terms of reference. Rudd said the attorney general should consider standing aside during such an inquiry – noting such a process would give Porter an opportunity to clear his name.
Rudd said there had been statements from brave young women across politics on this – Liberal, Labor and others. He said there were “many others, also brave, who have chosen to remain silent” and he had “great respect for them all”.
The former Labor leader – who has been campaigning for a royal commission into the Murdoch media’s dominant role in the print market in Australia – said he was “sure my enemies in the Liberal party, the Labor party and the Murdoch party will be hard at work to find examples of harassment and assault among my staff during the period I was prime minister”.
Across his period in office, he said, he was “not aware of any complaint about my own staff, my ministers or members”. He implied that he would be targeted in News Corp press for the remarks he was making on Tuesday.
“As for News Corporation, and before they resurrect my drunken visit to a strip club while I was an MP, let me note that I was there as the guest of Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man, Col Allan, although I have accepted full responsibility for being there – my choice,” Rudd said.
He did not outline any specific allegations against News Corp Australia but pointed to the allegations of sexual assault levelled against Roger Ailes, the late former chairman and chief executive of Fox News, Fox Television Stations and 20th Television.
“Perhaps News Corp, which harboured such notorious sexual predators as Roger Ailes, will tell us whether they’ve used nondisclosure clauses to keep quiet allegations of sexual harassment and assault within their corporation.”
Rudd was later asked by a News Corp Australia journalist whether his behaviour as Labor leader fell short of appropriate workplace standards. The journalist referenced comments by some of Rudd’s colleagues about the way he had treated staff and the people around him when he was prime minister – allegations that did not include any claims of sexual misconduct.
Rudd criticised the journalist before stating: “None of us are perfect in this business and I certainly am not.” Rudd added: “If you were to interview each of the cabinet colleagues at the time about my leadership of the government, my leadership of the cabinet, my leadership of my own staff … and compare that against the leadership of previous prime ministers, I would come out reasonably OK.”
Rudd made the comments during a wide-ranging address to the National Press Club, during which he also argued that Australia was “now facing the most profound challenges to our domestic and international circumstances since the second world war”.
It was time for action, “otherwise, we run the risk by mid-century of becoming a second-rate country – one that fails to live up to its possibilities and its potentiality”.
He said he was concerned about the corrosion of institutions, an exhausted economic model and a country “woefully unprepared for the radical changes now unfolding around us”.
He called for a national debate about the impact of “the Murdoch media monopoly”, as News Corp “continues to control the terms of our national conversation”. He accused it of running politically motivated campaigns on debt and deficit.
Rudd also called on the government to develop “a coherent, long-term, national China strategy” to deal with major geopolitical challenges, rather than mimicking “Trumpism”. The strategy should effectively balance Australia’s national security interests and long-term economic interests, he said.
Guardian Australia contacted News Corp Australia to seek a response.