The Set the Standard report has shown that workplace culture in the Australian parliament is in a full-blown crisis that demands national leadership, Intifar Chowdhury writes.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s apology for the mistreatment women face at federal parliament – a supposed sanctuary for the rule of law – should have been a moment of genuine contrition on behalf of the institution. It should have been an opportunity to spring into action on preventing violence against women. However, the apology – superficial and hastily arranged in the dying months of the 46th parliament – was too little and too late.
Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, along with 2021 Australian of the Year and survivor advocate Grace Tame, expressed disappointment with the apology. Many other young women were left similarly unimpressed.
In 2021, Higgins courageously shared the devastating experience of allegedly being raped in a minister’s office. What followed were insensitive comments from the prime minister as the issue unfolded. In order to sympathise with Ms Higgins’ situation, Australia’s head of government had to be reminded that he is a father who would not want similar outcomes for his daughters.
He also insinuated that Australian women should be grateful for living in a liberal democracy where marches for justice are not “met with bullets.” Inadvertently perhaps, the prime minister was gas-lighting Australian women. Rightfully so, Higgins called out his “victim-blaming” rhetoric, which was of course distressing to many survivors of sexual assault.
One year after Higgins disclosed the allegations, the parliament is still talking, but not acting. This signals that the government does not – or worse, is unwilling to – grasp the gravity of the matter.
Higgins’ case triggered a landmark review that provided clear insight into the toxic culture that’s been allowed to form in and around the Australian parliament, but its recommendations have not been sufficiently taken on board. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Set the Standard report revealed that one in three staff in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces have experienced sexual harassment.
The report’s first recommendation is a statement acknowledging Ms Higgins and other women who had been bullied, harassed, or abused in parliamentary workplaces. The prime minister’s apology at least did this. This is why it came in the first sitting day of 2022 – as soon as possible after the Jenkins report had been received.
Apart from recommending a statement about past failings, the report highlighted deep current dysfunction at the heart of parliamentary workplace culture that the government is yet to address.
The government has convened the task force recommended by the review, but with no parliamentary code of conduct, and changes to the Members of Parliament Staff Act still in the pipeline, politicians and staffers have largely not been held accountable for their actions.
The government also rejected the report’s advice to impose a positive duty on employers to keep every working female employee in the country safe from sexual harassment, saying it would be too “complex and confusing” for victims and employers to handle.
The fact is, this is a crisis. It demands concerted bipartisan effort. Yet the government continues to deflect and delegate the issue, instead of wielding its power to affect immediate change. Indeed, many of the report’s recommendations hinge on effective leadership, not simply ticking boxes.
Still, the courageous advocacy of Higgins, Tame and others is likely to force some change in parliamentary culture.
These young women are the face of a generation who will not be pacified by the apparently reluctant words of a formal apology. They may well invoke hyper-vigilance among women in the electorate, who will not let the matter slide and will continue to demand the Jenkins recommendations are acted upon.
Sexual harassment is an issue pertaining to the basic human right of physical safety. It’s a broad and systemic issue that requires diligent effort and firm targets, and the federal government must show leadership on it.
How Australia’s political leaders respond to this crisis will reveal how much they care about women’s issues and send a crucial signal to the Australian people. This is a chance for Australia’s leaders to show they will do what they can to keep women safe and take misconduct against women seriously.
The government must make no mistake about this ‘all blowing over’ if they do the bare minimum. The stakes are high.
Evidence from the Australian Election Study shows a worrying decline in political interest among young people aged 18 to 30, which is more pronounced among young women. If the political system continues to take women’s issues lightly, that unwelcoming and unfriendly institutional signalling may further push young women away from politics. It’s high time the political infrastructure reorients to, at the very least, make women feel safe.
This crisis, and how it is addressed, will have direct implications for the future of gender equity in this country. At the end of the day, the government must take this chance to show Australian women that they will be taken seriously.
This article is part of Policy Forum’s In Focus: International Women’s Day section.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.