Three steps to change the toxic culture at Parliament House

Parliament House was once described as an eternal boarding school. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Parliament House was once described as an eternal boarding school. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The volume of the discussion surrounding the culture of federal parliament has now reached a crescendo with further revelations of alleged rapes and sexual harassment emerging daily and a host of survivors, politicians, former politicians, and experts in various fields expressing their views on what should be done. Multiple reviews are under way and the government is scrambling and under pressure.

In this situation an observer can paint a bigger picture by providing some context and making some key distinctions.

The culture of parliament has long been regarded as toxic, but few observers thought that it would descend to this level in 2021. How has a hothouse, macho culture descended into a workplace dangerous for women? Forty years of struggle for reform has clearly not solved deep-seated problems.

There are several elements to the historical context. The first aspect, told by Canberra academics such as Professors Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, of women fighting for equality and gender balance in parliamentary representation, was partly about the macho culture of political parties and parliament itself. This affronting culture was one reason why women were not attracted to political life and were demeaned within it. Improvements in gender balance have only come slowly and the macho culture clearly remains.

The second, broader picture of the parliamentary culture was often just hinted at, with descriptions of a hot-house environment, never really spelled out but thought to include long-hours, stress, personal ambition, unforgiving partisan competition, and too much drinking and partying away from families around Kingston and Manuka. Former Hawke-Keating minister John Button, with a dry sense of humour, entertained many audiences in the 1980s with his descriptions of Parliament House as an eternal boarding school because of the appalling behaviour which he witnessed. Coming to Parliament, he said, was like entering a second adolescence. The ethos of parliament was, to use sporting terminology, "what happens on tour stays on tour". We should have seen this coming.

In recent years there have been many different but still relevant warning signs and while no one should think that this behaviour involves just the government parties, they have been front and centre. There has been the Barnaby Joyce affair, leading to the so-called bonking ban against sexual relations between ministers and their staff introduced by Malcolm Turnbull when he was prime minister. Then there were the many allegations by Liberal women of male bullying during the time of the leadership coup in August 2018 which brought Turnbull down. Julia Banks left the party. Labor MP Emma Husic was shamed and bullied out of her parliamentary seat by her own party. Last November there was the ABC Four Corners program, Inside the Canberra Bubble, implicating two senior ministers in allegations of sexual misbehaviour. Now there are several current cases, involving alleged rape and sexual harassment.

This concentration on federal parliament can imply that it is inherently different or special. Federal parliament does have distinct characteristics, including its isolated location in the national capital of a large country and its political character, but it shares social behaviour with many other parts of society, including state and territory parliaments. MPs and staffers churn through federal parliament house and bring their existing life experience, ethics and cultures with them when they enter it. There are enough sexual predators in the law, corporate Australia, the medical profession, schools, universities, churches and the NGO sector to raise red flags about our political representatives and their staff.

Male privilege and the disjunction in power between offenders and those they abuse is undoubtedly at the heart of the problem of such criminal offending, but a distinction must be made between the propensity to offend and the ability or capacity of those in powerful positions to handle cases appropriately when they arise. The offenders are invariably male, but those holding the relevant middle-management authority may be female, bearing in mind that the four party leaders and the presiding officers of the two chambers are all male.

There will be three elements to any solution, none of which will be sufficient by themselves.

The first is a change for the better towards gender equality in decision-making, not just in parliament but our entire society. This applies especially to those parts of society from which parliament draws its members and staff, such as trade unions, corporations, the law, and the rural and education sectors. Political parties have a big role here. Campaigners for equal representation of women may have thought implicitly that that would be enough on its own, but it will not be.

The second is systemic and must include better regulations, appeal mechanisms, codes of conduct, independent arbiters, and especially sanctions against perpetrators. These matters will be addressed by the various reviews that are underway and experts in workplace relations, cultural change and labour law will play their part. Parliament, led by the prime minister and other party leaders, must take a lead. Society must demand that they do and be unforgiving at elections if they do not.

The third element can be described in various ways, according to different ethical frameworks. It involves individual ethics and demands a change of heart by each person, most often men but also women. In religious circles it would be called personal conversion. In social movements and education circles it is called consciousness-raising. It can be demanded of individuals in selection processes and in training and promotion but is deeper than that.

This last element, which is the hardest to achieve, may ultimately be the most important and long-lasting. Systemic change may be hollow without it.

  • John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.
This story Three steps to change parliamentary culture first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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