Published: 01 March 2021

Parliament is a workplace. There are members, parliamentary staff, ministers and their staff and public servants of varying ages gender and seniority. Workplaces have a culture, the way they do things. Our parliaments generally have a poor culture with lack of clear 'rules' and few formal processes to address behaviours that would attract a formal and structured response in almost all other workplaces.

The culture in most, if not all, Australian parliaments is one of privilege and entitlement. Many seem unaware of their privilege, sense of entitlement, and the power these positions give them. This can and does cloud their judgment. We are all at risk of abusing and not recognising this power and privilege.

Abuse, including sexual, verbal, physical, and psychological is totally unacceptable and has lasting impacts on a victim. Parliaments must have formal, independent processes to address claims of any form of abuse.

What is certainly not needed is another round of "internal" inquiries led by those with power and privilege that treat this issue as a political problem. An independent mechanism must be established, whereby victims are believed and supported effectively and not forced to have only two options; stay and 'not make a fuss' or make a complaint and risk losing your job.

Perpetrators must be held to account, party loyalty must be secondary to the welfare of victims and leaders must take ultimate responsibility for those who report to them. The power to recommend removal of perpetrators if members from office, or their employment if advisors, needs to be the ultimate penalty.

However, an independent process to deal with incidents after they occur is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. To construct the fence at the top a much broader approach is needed. The workplace culture needs a preventative approach based on respect honesty and personal responsibility. Loyalty to the party, regardless of the circumstances, which allows an overriding of an appropriate response needs to end.

I have experienced firsthand the power, privilege and blind loyalty to the party. After being loudly verbally abused, belittled and threatened by a former senior minister in the presence of others, the party quickly closed ranks to protect the government. The minister's colleague who witnessed the event privately apologised for not stepping in at the time but when soon after called upon to describe the incident stated all he saw was "a normal conversation between two members".

Rather than stepping up as a leader should, when called to consider whether a breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct had occurred, the then premier, instructed the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet to review the incident and prepare a report for him. This was done in less than 48 hours. Not once was I spoken to, by the premier or the secretary.

The premier stood by his minister, absolved him of any wrongdoing, with no genuine apology from either and the report never saw the light of day, not even for me. It was an abrupt reminder of how the system worked and my place in that system. The system made the problem disappear. The search for truth and justice was sidestepped.

What we have seen in our federal parliament is absolutely shameful and far worse than my experience. The more we understand about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, a brave woman who by telling her story shines a bright light on these cultural problems, the more we see the underlying lack of respect, dishonesty, the inability of so many to see, let alone acknowledge, their privilege, the overwhelming sense of entitlement, the gender inequality and the abuse of power. The inability to distinguish a crime from a bit of hanky-panky is staggering.

There should be zero tolerance of abuse in any form in our parliaments. Prevention can only be achieved through a culture change. This starts with respect, for women and for those who don't have the power and privilege MPs have. A culture of non-reporting of events, putting party above people, seeing sexual assault as a 'woman's issue', victim blaming and shaming, diverting the focus by playing the victim are all too familiar responses. We must and can do better.

All workplaces have an independent, accessible means for dealing with any alleged abuse except parliament. We need proper processes where those in positions of power and privilege understand their role and are prepared to be held to account.

The Advocate, Tuesday 23 February 2021


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