Opinion //

Cleaning house: Fixing the culture of sexism in parliament

Brittany Higgins opened the door. Now it’s time for the Government to walk through it.

Content Warning: sexual assault, sexual harrassment

For decades, the machinations of Australia’s Parliament House have been concealed from the public eye. The historic pattern of sexism and misogyny, not to mention the numerous instances of sexual harassment and abuse, have been foiled by the House’s culture of silence, an unspoken agreement upheld by politicians and staffers.

As an underexamined and underreported issue, the mistreatment of women in parliament finally garnered widespread national and international media attention in February of 2021, when political staffer Brittany Higgins revealed she had been raped by a male colleague in a ministerial office two years prior. 

Higgins’ disclosure tore back the curtain on the treatment of women in politics, and more specifically, in the corridors of power. Female politicians began to come out in support of Higgins, sharing their own stories of sexism and harassment in the House and igniting a public debate on the necessity of safer workplaces for women. 

Yet, the mistreatment of women in Parliament House certainly wasn’t new information when Higgins shared her story in 2021. Female politicians and staffers have been victims to the culture of ingrained misogyny within the House for years, often being forced to ‘shut up and put up’ out of fear of being labelled a troublemaker.

In a workplace that, as of 2021, employs around 5,000 people, it’s both confusing and disturbing to know that an employee making an offensive sexual slur or touching a colleague inappropriately wouldn’t be met with some form of disciplinary action. It’s even more concerning to know that this bad behaviour wouldn’t be considered unacceptable.

The fact that it has taken a political staffer publicly discussing her experience of rape for the Government to take the workplace culture of Parliament House seriously suggests that this is an issue of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. It has shone a light on the lack of accountability mechanisms within the House that has enabled this type of conduct to continue for decades.

After looking into the Parliament House’s human resource department for evidence of codes of conduct or some form of behavioural regulations for politicians and staffers, it became apparent that no such things exist. In fact, when I rang the Department to ask about their process of reporting incidents of misconduct, I was rushed off the phone and promised that “someone will get back to you”. I’m still eagerly awaiting their response.

What this shows is that the House’s internal human resources department is ill-equipped and arguably, not intended to handle complaints regarding misconduct, particularly those affecting female staff.

What the House desperately needs are robust mechanisms that protect female workers from sexism, harassment and abuse, a notion echoed in Stephanie Foster’s 2021 Review of the Parliamentary Workplace. The implementation of explicit and binding codes of conduct for all staff at Parliament House, with disciplinary consequences for members who breach them, would be an important first step in revising the House’s hostile culture towards women. 

However, the most significant recommendation of the ten (all of which the Government has agreed to implement), is the creation of an independent body for the confidential reporting and management of serious incidents that occur within Parliament House. Such a system dismantles the expectation of women to keep incidents of mistreatment to themselves, instead offering a safe forum where the issues can be properly investigated and handled with disciplinary action.

With that being said, changing the culture of ingrained misogyny within Parliament House is not an overnight fix. Implementing these concrete measures are likely to improve behaviour and attitudes towards women within the House, but they are no panacea. What these changes should seek to do is continue the conversation about the treatment of women in all workplaces, especially Parliament, and keep at the fore discussions of sexism and harassment in work environments across the country.