A year of reckoning over the treatment of women, so what hope is there for politics?

By Katina Curtis

The final parliamentary question of the year, and its answer, were unthinkable when politicians first sat in 2021.

Liberal backbencher Lucy Wicks, who has spoken of the impact of her personal experiences of abuse and mistreatment, asked cabinet minister Sussan Ley to elaborate on the strength and resilience of Australians, “particularly Australian women”.

“For so many women, this has been the most difficult of years. For women in this workplace, it has been a year like no other,” Ley replied.

Brittany Higgins speaks at the March 4 Justice protest outside of Parliament House in Canberra.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

The first question time of the year was way back in February. Two weeks before Brittany Higgins went public with allegations a colleague raped her, before tens of thousands of women marched for better treatment, before Julia Banks and Kate Ellis wrote books exposing the seedy underbelly of parliamentary life, before thousands of Sydney schoolgirls disclosed abuse at the hands of their male peers, before one cabinet minister was accused of a rape in his teenage years and another was accused of being emotionally abusive (both strenuously denied), before Grace Tame had used her powerful voice to doggedly pursue governments and leaders to do better. That first question time of the year was instead dominated by queries about industrial relations, pay cuts and the strong year ahead the government foresaw for Australians.

While the treatment of women in politics has in the past felt like a recurrent issue that caused fury and debate for a few weeks before getting buried in the churn of the news cycle, this year something changed.

Dr Sonia Palmieri, an Australian National University gender and politics expert, says the sustained conversation throughout the year and the airing of “truly appalling” scandals seem to have marked a turning point.

“That is new. Because previously, people swept it under the carpet. Previously, people just said, it doesn’t matter because it’s in the interest of the political party, and we have to win and it doesn’t matter,” she says. “This stopped this year. And I think that’s really important.”

This week, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins handed the government a blueprint for cleaning up parliamentary workplaces.

Her review was commissioned in the days after Higgins spoke out. Jenkins and her team heard from more than 1700 current and former politicians, staffers, journalists, lobbyists, parliamentary staff and others who work in Parliament House including cleaners and drivers.

A third of those surveyed had been sexually harassed. Nearly two in five were bullied. More than three-quarters had either witnessed or experienced bullying or harassment. One per cent had been sexually assaulted in their workplace.

More devastating than these numbers were the personal stories of assaults by MPs or colleagues: kisses in lifts, hands up skirts, endless gossip about female staff’s sex lives, plying people with booze, and being bullied to the point of crying in the toilet every day.

“It is a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day thanks to the looks up and down you get, to the representation in the parliamentary chambers, to the preferential treatment politicians give senior male journalists over younger females at press conferences,” one contribution said.

Ley told Parliament it was a sobering report that “told us that we must do better”. She thanked those who told their stories and acknowledged that was hurtful and distressing for them.

“I want to say that I feel that the culture of change is coming, and we can look forward with more confidence to when a young person who comes to work in this building feels inspired and valued,” she said.

But staffers are fearful nothing will change or that politicians will somehow give themselves an out.

Some warn that if no concrete action is taken or the moves towards it look insincere, the Coalition will lose many good staffers.

“The full recommendations have to happen. I don’t think it will happen,” says one, speaking anonymously to protect their boss and their job.

Palmieri calls the 28 recommendations in the Set the Standard report, to which she contributed, “a step-by-step, colour-by-numbers type process” that clearly tells leaders what needs to be done and when.

This includes creating codes of conduct for politicians and staff enforced by an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission, setting up an independent human resources department and regular reporting on progress. A range of actions are aimed at ending the “boys’ club” culture including guidelines for alcohol use, more respect in the chambers and a re-think of the sitting calendar.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, releasing Jenkins’ report on Tuesday, acknowledged the need for change but the only concrete commitment he made was to continue the multi-party process initially used to establish the review.

“We all share in the ownership of the problems that are set out in this report. But we all share in implementing the solutions as well,” he said.

However, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said on Friday Morrison’s private instructions to him, Special Minister of State Ben Morton and Minister for Women Marise Payne had been clearly “to make sure we take action across all the recommendations”.

Rachelle Miller, a former ministerial media adviser, returned to Parliament House on Thursday to add her voice to those calling for change. A year ago, she spoke out on ABC’s Four Corners about an affair she had with her then-boss, minister Alan Tudge, in 2017. On Thursday, she said the full truth was more complicated.

“This relationship was defined by a significant power imbalance, it was an emotionally, and on one occasion, physically, abusive relationship,” Miller said.

Tudge denied this characterisation but has stood down from the ministry and taken personal leave during an independent investigation. This in itself is a sign of change: Morrison dismissed initial reports of the relationship last year, saying, “these things happen in Australia.”

Miller said her return to the public spotlight was not about revenge but about changing the system to ensure no one ever had to go through the same thing.

She asked why Morrison hadn’t immediately committed to following Jenkins’ recommendations.

“Unfortunately, it’s a sad reality that the perpetrators are the ones who must change the laws to make themselves accountable,” she said. “You have the power, we do not.”

Palmieri says, on the one hand, Morrison is right to point out change will require everyone across all parliamentary workplaces to act. On the other hand, he is the Prime Minister.

“He probably does need to take more ownership of his role and the Liberal Party’s role in the culture that currently exists in Parliament House,” she said.

“This ‘work hard, play hard’ culture, the ‘win at all costs’ culture – that is being driven by a lot of young men, in particular, who work up there and lord it over many, many other people. I think he is responsible for that.”

A series of incidents in the chambers this week – name-calling, dog growling, a heckle from one senator to another about keeping one’s legs shut – have attracted attention as tempers frayed.

But the challenge of cultural change is perhaps underscored by an interjection that went unremarked, just part of the usual hurly-burly of parliamentary debate.

Shortly before the question to Ley, Liberal marginal seat-holder Gladys Liu asked “the best minister for health and aged care” Greg Hunt a question. His response began by thanking “the best member for Chisholm”.

“Get a room!” came the call from a male Labor backbencher.

Support is available from the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service at 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

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