Spotlight on Australia's vexed parliament on International Women's Day

FILE PHOTO: Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a meeting in Tokyo, Japan October 6, 2020. Kiyoshi Ota/Pool via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia launched a A$19 million campaign on International Women's Day urging people to "unmute" or speak up when they witness disrespect against women, as its parliament is under scrutiny over sexual assault allegations.

Minister for Women Marise Payne said in a statement that Australia had made progress towards gender equality, but that "challenges remain" in the home and workplace.

In launching the campaign, Payne, who is also the foreign affairs minister and acting defence minister, and Minister for Families Anne Rushton, were grilled over the government's response to historical rape allegations that have intensified scrutiny of the treatment of women in Australian politics.

Three female employees of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Liberal party last month said they had been raped by the same man in 2019 and 2020. One of the alleged victims has lodged a complaint with police.

Last week, Attorney-General Christian Porter, the country's chief law officer, identified himself as the subject of a separate historical rape allegation, declared his innocence and strongly denied the claim.

"We have all been shocked by the distressing revelations and allegations in recent weeks that particularly relate to the treatment of women in my workplace, in the Australian parliament," Payne said in her International Women's Day speech.

She later told reporters the events had driven "a very broad national discussion about the treatment of women".

"Everywhere I have been in the last week or so outside Canberra, in regional New South Wales, in Sydney itself, Western Sydney where I live and where I work, for many people these have been the subject of discussion."

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner will conduct an independent inquiry into the workplace culture of Australia's Parliament and report its findings by November.

Rushton said the parliament needed to "set an example for the Australian public".

Morrison is resisting calls for another independent inquiry, into the historical allegations against Porter. Payne told ABC radio on Monday morning it was a "very vexed" situation, adding "the Prime Minister has made his position very clear".

Two cabinet ministers have taken leave amid the controversy. Porter has taken leave to improve his mental health. Defence minister Linda Reynolds has extended her medical leave.

Reynolds first took leave on February 24 for a pre-existing heart problem in the wake of revelations a young female staff member had allegedly been raped on the couch in the defence minister's office in 2019.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)

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