SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian senator has sued a male counterpart for defamation for making sexually offensive remarks, in a landmark case that brings the spirit of the #MeToo movement to the heart of Australia’s democracy.
During a debate a month ago in parliament over a ban on the use of pepper spray, Senator David Leyonhjelm had heckled Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, telling her to “stop shagging men”, a vulgar colloquial term for sexual intercourse.
Comments made in the chamber are subject to legal protections. But Leyonhjelm repeated the remark, using the same term, in subsequent media appearances.
Responding in a series of emotional interviews in the days that followed, Hanson-Young accused Leyonhjelm of “slut shaming” and bullying, gaining sympathy among the public in a country where strict defamation laws have stymied the kind of harassment claims that have galvanised the #MeToo movement elsewhere in the world.
“The defamatory statements Senator Leyonhjelm made and continues to make are an attack on my character, and have done considerable harm to me and my family,” Hanson-Young said in a statement emailed to Reuters on Thursday.
“I’m calling this out because it is wrong. No woman, whether she be working behind a bar, in an office or in the parliament, deserves to be treated this way, and it needs to stop.”
Court documents filed by her lawyers on Wednesday allege Leyonhjelm defamed her and implied she was a hypocrite for having sexual relations with men while also criticising them in the parliamentary debate.
They also allege Leyonhjelm accused Hanson-Young of hating men.
The suit is the first by a sitting politician against another in Australia.
Leyonhjelm, a libertarian Liberal Democrats senator, said his legal advisers found her case was without merit and that he “will be defending these claims strenuously”.
He has not apologised. Hanson-Young has asked the court to impose unspecified damages, since it cannot compel Leyonhjelm to apologise.
She has described her action as a “fight for women across Australia”, having been contacted by many women who had shared their own experiences.
The #MeToo movement has sought to hold accountable male business leaders, politicians and entertainers for sexual assault and misconduct, leading to resignations in major corporations, Hollywood and among lawmakers.
Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore