AUT apologises to Australian MP over sexual harassment complaint inquiry

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AUT and sexual harassment policy ... "This can never happen again." Image: Cole Eastham-Farrelly/RNZ

RNZ News

Auckland University of Technology has unreservedly apologised to a former academic turned Australian MP for its botched handling of her complaint regarding sexual harassment by a former staff member.

Dr Marisa Paterson was director of Australian National University’s Centre for Gambling Research in 2020 when she publicly accused internationally-respected gambling expert Max Abbott of stalking and harassing her.

He stepped down as dean of the School of Health and Environmental Sciences​ after the story was aired by the news organisation Stuff. He later resigned as a professor.

In a joint statement with the university issued through the Office of the Human Rights Proceedings today, Dr Paterson, now a Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly, said she made the complaint because she wanted the harmful behaviour to stop and for the situation to be investigated.

“My desperation in lodging a formal complaint was extreme — my career was everything to me and I knew that making a complaint would have significant implications. The independent report that was commissioned by AUT and this apology, are public recognition that I did not experience the appropriate or adequate response to the harm I experienced.”

Dr Paterson said in addition to the sexual harassment, she suffered “long-term distress and implications” from having to fight an institution for an adequate response.

“But today, what I went through is being publicly recognised. And my voice today is being heard — most importantly by AUT. It is accounted for and it is being recognised as an equal through this joint statement. My statement today is not one of forgiveness. This is a public step in leadership.

“This can never happen again.”

‘Poor investigation’
Chancellor Rob Campbell said AUT offered its unreserved apology to Dr Paterson for its poor investigation into her complaint and lack of communication through the process.

“We would also like to recognise your courage in coming forward, and to thank you for providing the opportunity for AUT to learn from this and initiate a process of culture change which we are confident will improve the experience of people learning and working in the university,” he said.

“We hope that our actions will be viewed as reflecting a survivor-centred approach and positive shift in institutional culture.

“We trust that this genuine apology will support you in your pathway forward.”

He said the university was already working to respond the 36 recommendations in the independent review, including the development of a stand-alone sexual harassment policy, a new three tier complaints process, and training for all managers.

The Office of the Human Rights Proceedings said the apology and joint statement was a positive outcome for both sides.

‘Absolute tenacity’
Director Michael Timmons said it reflected “Dr Paterson’s absolute tenacity and her strength in accessing justice for what happened to her”.

“But it also shows AUT has acknowledged what has happend to her and is publicly holding themselves to account.”

He conceded the outcome had been a long time coming.

In an interview with the ABC in Australia, Dr Paterson said: “I am feeling vindicated. I feel that today there has been some justice served. This has been many years in the making for me, and I think that this is a big day for human rights and for women.”

Dr Paterson first laid a complaint with the Human Rights Commission in November 2021 but it was not resolved.

Mid-way through this year, she contacted the Office of the Human Rights Proceedings, which is responsible for providing publicly-funded representation to complainants taking legal action under the Human Rights Act.

Timmons said the settlement has avoided the need for further legal proceedings.

“This case is really important because it says to big institutions, particularly tertiary institutions, that they have firm obligations under the Human Rights Act for the actions of their staff.”

Max Abbott’s name was not mentioned in the apology or statement as the case only concerned AUT’s actions, he said.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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