Workplace bullies face 10 years in jail

WORKPLACE and cyber bullies face up to 10 years in jail under proposed changes to South Australian laws.

The State Government yesterday said it would consider replicating sweeping new Victorian laws aimed at tackling bullying, including abuse levelled through social media websites and on mobile phones.

Independent MP Bob Such will take legislation to Parliament as early as next week after reports that tormentors involved in serious bullying cases had escaped punishment.

Dr Such yesterday told The Advertiser he knew of a string of bullying cases with tragic results, including the recent suicide of a student from an exclusive Adelaide private school.

He also said he had been told of a case of bullying at a metropolitan hospital that pushed an employee to the brink of suicide.

The changes would mirror Victoria’s so-called “Brodie’s Law”, prompted by the suicide of bullied 19-year-old waitress Brodie Panlock and championed by Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu.

It added serious workplace and cyber bullying to existing stalking laws and opened the door for charges against people using Facebook, Twitter, e-mail or text messages to threaten and harass.

A spokesman for Attorney-General John Rau yesterday said the Government had already taken steps to criminalise forms of cyber bullying and would consider the expanded proposal from Dr Such.

Industrial Relations Minister Pat Conlon has said he would watch “with interest” how the Victorian law affects workplace bullying.

The law would allow punishment for anyone who caused mental or physical distress through bullying and a person who caused a suicide would be jailed for up to 10 years.

Punishments including mediation and counselling would be mandated in less serious cases. 

“At the moment laws to protect people are tucked away under things like occupational health and safety and they’re not working,” Dr Such said. “By having flagship legislation you make it very clear that it’s a serious issue.”

Dr Such said the increased capacity for bullying through recent technological developments needed to be addressed with dedicated laws.

“While it’s hard to tackle the internet on the technical side, you can tackle the outcome and the consequence,” he said. “If you were sending messages electronically and continually harassing that person then I would want it to cover that.”

Opposition justice spokesman Stephen Wade said he would “look favourably” at any proposal to crack down on bullying.

“Victoria has felt the need to develop its laws and it’s a timely reminder for us to make sure that ours are effective,” he said. 

Organisational psychologist Darryl Cross said SA needed stronger anti-bullying laws.

“This is certainly going in the right direction because a lot of managers, supervisors and peers in the workplace still have not got the message that bullying is not on,” he said.

“The first thing people tell me (when they are bullied) is they lose sleep, they get anxious at work, they feel like throwing up, they don’t want to be in their job, feel disconnected, loose their appetite and so it goes on from there.”

Dr Cross said in Australia about six million work days were lost because of depression, which was often caused by work stress and bullying. The real cost of that would be about $4.3 billion.

UniSA bullying researcher Ken Rigby said severe bullying had been established as a contributor to serious mental health issues later in life.

“You find we are talking about a wide spectrum of behaviour – at one end of the spectrum is mild teasing, at the other is violent assault,” he said.

Dr Rigby said bullies were motivated by factors including ostracisation from family, imitating peers or social sadism. However, he argued it was “foolish” to criminalise most verbal bullying.

Attorney-General John Rau last month announced new laws making it illegal to take or publish humiliating, demeaning or degrading images of another person without their consent.

The laws followed the internet publication of a video showing the savage assault of a Craigmore High School student.

Victoria’s laws came after Brodie Panlock jumped to her death in 2006.

A court was told co-workers at a cafe abused her, spat on her, poured beer over her and held her down while she was doused in cooking oil.

The owner, manager, chef and a waiter were charged under occupational health and safety laws and fined a total of $337,000.