politics

The 4 things that need to change in Australian politics to keep women safe.

Over the last few months, the news cycle has been overwhelmed by reports of how women are treated in the corridors of Australian power.

We’ve seen the alleged rape of a woman inside an office at Parliament House turned into a conversation about politics instead of trauma.

We've heard Prime Minister Scott Morrison admit he only gained clarity on the severity of the allegations made by Brittany Higgins once his wife, Jenny, asked him to imagine his daughters at the centre of it.

We learned Higgins' boss called her a "lying cow," as we watched more and more women step forward with stories from all sides of politics. 

We've seen Scott Morrison dismiss calls for an inquiry into a historical rape allegation made against one of his own cabinet ministers, Attorney-General Christian Porter.

We watched not a single member of the senior Morrison government attend the nationwide 'March 4 Justice' rallies on Monday. 

And that's just the start. 

Watch: Scott Morrison on Brittany Higgins' allegations. Post continues after video.


Video via ABC.

Australian women are feeling distressed, defeated and overwhelmed with despair as they look at the horror unravelling in Canberra and think, 'how do we make sure this doesn't keep happening?'

But whilst the revelations and reactions can be disheartening, the women speaking their truth are inspiring. 

By refusing to stay silent, women like Brittany Higgins, Dhanya Mani and Chelsey Potter — former government staffers who have alleged varying degrees of sexual misconduct at the hands of male colleagues — have helped expose the toxic culture endured by women in the political sphere.

Former government staffers Brittany Higgins, Dhanya Mani and Chelsey Potter have all spoken out. Image: Twitter. 

It feels like we are in the midst of an uprising for survivors of sexual assault and the treatment of women in workplaces more broadly, particularly with voices such as Australian of the Year Grace Tame being platformed like never before.

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But what can be done to tangibly change the culture for women in politics? Here are just four starting points.

1. The Sex Discrimination Act.

The current system: Right now, MPs are not technically included in the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984.

That means it is currently not illegal for an MP to sexually harass someone in the workplace. It's not illegal for a judge either — or anyone that's a statutory appointed officer.

The law covers everything from staring, leering, suggestive comments and a request for sexual favours to the emailing of rude jokes, intrusive questions about your personal life or the displaying of sexual screen savers. More serious types of sexual harassment covered under the Act — like sexual assault, indecent exposure, or stalking — are also offences under criminal law.

None of it applies to MPs. 

What have people said?

"It has actually been raised in several inquiries but no one has ever acted upon it," Independent MP Zali Steggall told Mamamia. "I am not protected or liable for sexual harassment as an MP, currently — there’s a grey area. Last year the Law Council drafted amendments and forwarded them to the Attorney-General but that has had no success in getting through."

"I am not protected or liable for sexual harassment as an MP currently," says Zali Stegall. Image: Getty. 

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How it needs to be changed:

This is an amendment to an already existing Act that is, in the scheme of things, a simple fix.

Ms Stegall has previously written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, telling him: "This is a proactive tangible policy step that the government can take now to call out sexual harassment and reassure people that it’s more than just words, you’re prepared to take action." 

She didn't receive a reply, but presented the amendment to Parliament on March 15, 2021.

"The standard you walk past is the standard you accept," she told the chamber. "If you fail to adopt this amendment, you are endorsing sexual harassment in our workplace. You are saying MPs should not be held to the same standard as others."

She is currently in the process of building support from both sides of politics. 

2. Canberra's complaints processes. 

The current system: Australia’s Parliament does not have a Human Resources department. The closest comparison is the Department of Finance, which pays the staffers.

Parliamentary staffers are employed by individual MPs and the system is based on the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act (MOPS Act).

The current system means the MP is the employer; they hold the sole power to hire or fire a staffer, the latter of which they can do without a reason. 

Right now, if a staffer makes a sexual misconduct complaint, or any complaint, there is no independent process. They could go to the Department of Finance, which may undertake an investigation and collate a report that will end up with the MP. That MP will make the decision on whether to act, though they have no obligation to do so.

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"The way the MOPS Act is structured, the staffers are very powerless," Dr Maria Maley, Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University, told Mamamia.

"There's no other party in that employment relationship except the MP and the employee. There's no department involved legally, which means they're very much subject to the whims and the demands of that one person."

The Department of Finance — the HR equivalent — "doesn’t have any power to really help people".

Essentially, if a staffer has a complaint, their choice is between a politician, the police or silence.  

There is no HR department in Parliament House. Image: Getty.

What have people said? 

"Parliament House exists in a legal black hole," an anonymous senior Coalition staffer told The Age. "It’s as if Parliament House has been cut off the map of Australia in terms of workers’ rights… People are treated appallingly and there is literally nowhere to go, there's no HR department. There is no realistic place to complain."

"There needs to be an independent reporting mechanism for staff where they can confidently and safely make complaints — similar to processes in many other workplaces in Australia and abroad." – Brittany Higgins, former Liberal staffer, in a statement.

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"Imagine what the consequences for women would be if every workplace and every part of society had the lack of rules of Parliament?" – Dhanya Mani, lawyer and former Liberal staffer, to Mamamia.

"It’s quite incredible to anyone on the outside when you start explaining... there are no job descriptions [in Parliament]. Once someone’s been accepted for an ideology, and once you’ve vetted them, you are in without a staff induction, no performance management, no promotion system. It’s an incredibly toxic environment." – Independent MP Zali Steggall to Mamamia.

"There are so many women I have spoken to who will not speak out because they are genuinely worried about their reputation, genuinely worried about their employment." – Former Liberal staffer Chelsey Potter to ABC Radio.

How it needs to be changed:

Every person who Mamamia spoke to, from academics to lawyers to politicians, said there's one key thing that will fix a lot of these issues: an independent HR body.

As Ms Steggall reinforces, there needs to be a third party that exists "to which complaints, concerns and welfare issues can be taken outside the political party sphere".

3. The standard MPs and staff are held to. 

The current culture: The behaviour of ministers is currently governed by a code of conduct that's policed internally by senior figures in the government. But there's no equivalent for MPs and staff. 

In 2018, Independent MP Cathy McGowan introduced two private members bills: one for a federal integrity commission, and another for a code of conduct for MPs and staff. In 2019, Independent MP Dr Helen Haines made a commitment to act on this issue and introduced the Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill 2020.

What have people said?

"The lack of a formal set of standards, rules and a process for enforcement is an issue for all MPs, senators and their staff. Without rules, everyone is left floundering and asking: what is private? What is in the public interest? Where are the boundaries?" – MP Cathy McGowan wrote for The Guardian in 2020.

"Without rules, everyone is left floundering," says Cathy McGowan. Image: Getty.
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"Political leaders must be held accountable if they ignore complaints and/or act in a way that enables the conditions to exist in which serious misconduct tends to occur (lack of rules, lack of protections for women, etc.)" – Dhanya Mani, lawyer and former Liberal staffer to Mamamia.

"When I arrived in this place I was astounded to learn that no such code of conduct exists for MPs. Every other significant public profession in this country, from bureaucrats to judicial officers, journalists, barristers, medical professionals, nurses have established codes of conduct." – Independent MP Dr Helen Haines to Parliament.  

How it needs to be changed:

The Government's own 2020 Respect At Work report suggested that: "All Australian governments have gender equality strategies that address sexual harassment and recognise that sexual harassment is driven by gender inequality and is a form of gender-based violence."

Mamamia is calling on the government to lead by example and implement its own framework to ensure a prevention plan is in place. Dr Helen Haines' Bill promises to do just that. 

"This Bill creates a statutory code of conduct for MPs and their staff; a statutory basis for the existing registers of interest for parliamentarians; a new parliamentary integrity adviser, who will provide independent, confidential advice and guidance to MPs and their staff about integrity matters; and a new parliamentary standards commissioner who will assess, investigate, resolve or refer serious alleged breaches of the new code of conduct," she told Parliament in October 2020.

The Ethics Centre, Transparency International Australia, The Australia Institute National Integrity Committee, The Center for Public Integrity and Australian Federal Police Association have all thrown their support behind the Bill. 

4. Systemic misogynistic culture.

The current culture: The evidence of a misogynistic culture existing in the heart of Australia’s democracy is overwhelming.

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Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech in 2012. Four Corners’ ‘Canberra Bubble’ investigation. The countless allegations of sexual misconduct against parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle.

It doesn’t help that women are still largely under-represented. Whilst 43 per cent of Labor MPs in the Lower House are women, it's just 19 per cent for the Coalition — about one woman to every five men. 

Plus, it’s not uncommon for women to quit due to their treatment in politics. Most recently, MP Nicolle Flint announced she will leave politics at the next federal election after enduring ongoing harassment and bullying. During her 2019 campaign, for example, her office was defaced with the words "skank" and "prostitute".

The toxic treatment of women is so entrenched, that it’s referred to as the “women problem” in Australian politics.

What have people said? 

"Women are treated with disrespect regularly, I would say almost institutionally in Parliament. It reminds me of the corporate world in the 1970s — it's so out of date." – Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on 7.30.

"I am sick and tired of the lip service that we hear in Parliament about hearing victims' voice, about listening to women, about respect for women." – Labor MP Anne Aly on Q&A.

"I will always call out bad behaviour and will not tolerate any form of bullying or intimidation. I have experienced this both from within my own party and the Labor party. In anticipating my critics saying I'm 'playing the gender card', I say this: women have suffered in silence for too long." – Former Liberal MP Julia Banks in a statement as she quit politics.

"I hope the Leader of the Opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror." – Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard to Parliament in 2012. 

How it needs to be changed: 

This is a change that's easier said than done.

As federal Independent MP Zali Steggall told Mamamia, we need more women in positions of leadership. Not just more female MPs, she said, but also female chiefs of staff, heads of staff and advisors. 

But changing a misogynistic culture takes more than employing more women.

"We need men to change as well," Stegall said. "They need to call behaviour out. We are really concerned about the allegations we have at the moment, but it’s the lack of people prepared to speak out [that is also concerning]."

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One of the first steps is to lay bare exactly what goes on, so we can understand how bad the problem is.

"The only way to change the toxic culture is to pull back the curtain and talk about the ugly side to expose it and change it," Stegall says. "You can’t keep internalising it or sweeping it under the carpet."

The ‘March 4 Justice’ protest on March 15 was a tangible example of that, and now we need to keep the momentum going. 

As the organisers said: "We know we are always stronger working together than working apart, so by joining with us we have a much larger voice. And with that voice, we can hold the Federal Government and all politicians to account by putting pressure on our parliaments to address and put an end to the issues of sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, corruption, dangerous workplace cultures and lack of equality in politics and the community at large."

Ms Steggall says it's hard to have change in "one hit". But change incrementally occurs when more people — men and women — speak out like they did on Monday.

"This is not just a 'women problem', this is a men problem. We have to all speak out very loudly, and put the greater good above personal ambition. There are just too many men not willing to speak out," she told Mamamia.

Read more from Gemma Bath here, and more from Billi FitzSimons here.

Feature image: Getty.