Melbourne: The former Melbourne city council lord mayor Robert Doyle sexually harassed two women, and the council was an unsafe workplace for them, an independent investigation which made four adverse findings against Doyle has found.
A 10-page summary of the 100-page report tabled to council on Tuesday afternoon focused on allegations from two councillors, Tessa Sullivan, who resigned after making a complaint in September, and Cathy Oke. Investigators found Doyle had sexually harassed them both.
Four findings were made against Doyle: that he grabbed Sullivan’s breast in his chauffeur-driven mayoral car after a meeting on May 2; that he repeatedly stroked Oke’s thigh at a council dinner in 2014; he tried to kiss Oke in his office after a meeting in late 2016 or early 2017; and in all cases he acted after drinking red wine.
“Each of these matters, which have found to have been established, occurred in the context of the lord mayor having consumed substantial amounts of red wine,” the report found. “The investigators took into account Doyle’s strong denial of engaging in the alleged inappropriate conduct, but nevertheless concluded that they were satisfied the inappropriate conduct occurred.”
The council’s drug and alcohol policy was being reviewed, the council heard.
Doyle resigned in early February, days after being handed the investigation’s report and being admitted to hospital suffering from stress. Had he not resigned, the council would have needed to consider what action to take against him, the report found. The full report could not be made public because it contained personal details such as health information about those involved, council was told.
Doyle, Melbourne’s longest-serving lord mayor and a former Victorian opposition leader for the Liberal party, went on extended leave in December after his colleague, Sullivan, resigned and made a formal complaint to the council alleging that Doyle had sexually harassed and indecently assaulted her. Another councillor, Oke, then came forward. Doyle is the most high-profile Australian political figure to have been accused of sexual harassment following the #metoo movement.
Other women have also come forward since Sullivan and Oke spoke to investigators, including a woman who said that in 2016 Doyle allegedly touched her repeatedly on her upper thigh under a table at a medical awards ceremony. However, these allegations were the subject of a second council report, yet to be published. That investigation has been suspended due to Doyle’s illness, and would resume once Doyle could respond to the “serious allegations” put forward in that investigation, the summary tabled to council said.
Regarding the allegations that were not substantiated, the report remarked: “A failure to find something proven ... does not mean the thing did not happen or that the person who alleged the event occurred has been found to have been lying.”
Doyle’s wife, Emma Page-Campbell, issued a statement on his behalf, saying that he continued to deny all of the allegations made against him.
“In doing so, we note that only one of the eight initial allegations concerning Ms Sullivan has been upheld,” she said. “This finding, however, is not accepted by Robert and, furthermore, is not corroborated by a witness who has been publicly reported as saying that the incident did not and could not have taken place.”
Doyle remains in hospital, Page-Campbell said.
“Robert informed the investigation that he now recognises that his cheerful and oftentimes animated personality and manner towards people, both men and women alike, may no longer be appropriate by today’s standards,” she said. “He is sorry for any misunderstanding he has caused others by such conduct, but fervently rejects that any such conduct was intended to be inappropriate or sexual in nature.”
Barrister Ian Freckelton has led the council’s investigation. A separate investigation into Doyle is being conducted by Melbourne Health in relation to the medical awards dinner.
Speaking to councillors on Tuesday afternoon, Oke said now the report had been tabled, she wanted organisations including local government to “bring their heads out of the sand”.
“I know that power and powerful connections loom in this sorry saga,” she said. “Women don’t speak out because we fear that if the wrong person is unwittingly spoken to, it could mean a leak, a breach of confidentiality, a breach of trust and ultimately information in the hands of the accused and their powerful networks.
“There is a responsibility on all of us to recognise where power lies and to foster a healthy workplace for everyone, aligned with the values that we all hold as important and that our community would expect.”
The council’s chief executive, Ben Rimmer, said in a statement that Sullivan took “a very significant and courageous personal step” in being the first woman to come forward.
“It is a matter of regret that Ms Sullivan felt she had no alternative than to resign as a councillor,” he said. “Her complaint precipitated a process through which a number of opportunities for reform were identified with respect to the manner in which allegations of this nature are handled.”