It shouldn't be surprising that Parliament, as the seat of power, perpetuates the biases the modern nation of Australia was built on.
Such biases privilege men over women, white people over Indigenous people and anyone with darker skin. These biases have been passed down from one generation of men and women to the next and, while such biased principles were normative for their time, they are now widely questioned in the broader community. The values of the broader community have shifted dramatically, but politicians have not kept up with this shift. Within the "Canberra bubble" these biases continue to hold sway.
Events in Canberra this year have highlighted this issue. Anger and frustration continue to surround the handling of Brittany Higgins' allegations that she was raped by a colleague at Parliament House, as well as historical rape allegations made against former attorney-general Christian Porter, which he strongly denies. International Women's Day was co-opted by male politicians and, days after celebrating the same day, law firm MinterEllison parted ways with its female chief executive, Annette Kimmitt, because of an email she sent criticising the firm for taking Mr Porter on as a client. Such instances, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison's highly criticised handling of them, highlight how deeply held many of these biases are.
Let's look at the authority given to white male voices. Only 4 per cent of Australia's federal MPs had non-European ancestry in 2018, compared to 19 per cent of the Australian population, according to a report from the Australian Human Rights Commission. In the House of Representatives this year, 43 per cent of Labor MPs are women, while only 21 per cent of Liberal MPs are women.
The nation of Australia was founded on principles that were accepted in their time. Some of those principles are no longer acceptable in broader Australian society.
Some parties seek to address this disparity by setting gender quotas, while others resist, claiming they simply select the "best candidate" regardless of gender. Surely even supporters of this noble principle can understand that if one gender has more of a platform than another, and preference is more readily given to the loudest voices, then the actual "best candidates" may be overlooked?
If they do manage to make it to Parliament, female politicians are also held to different and often higher standards than their male counterparts. Professor Helen Sullivan of the Melbourne School of Government notes that for women to be deemed "qualified" they must "have both experience with wardrobe and hair to match". Classic examples were criticism of Julia Gillard's "style" - bowl of fruit, anyone? - and non-stop commentary on Julie Bishop's red shoes.
It doesn't stop at representation, though. A third area of entrenched bias is the prioritising of issues that favour one group over another. A clear example of this was the 2020 federal budget, which was widely criticised for ignoring the needs of women and focusing on the employment needs of men. Just 0.05 per cent of the $570 billion budget was directed to address systemic gender barriers.
The thing about bias, though, is that it's inherited - and insidious. Often those perpetuating it aren't aware they're doing so. So, how can people in positions of power in Canberra take immediate action to check their own biases?
The first step is awareness. Pause before making a decision to check if all available information is at hand, or if a decision is merely being made along familiar and comfortable lines. Seek feedback from trusted others about how attitudes are perceived. Develop a habit of self-reflection. Ask questions about why certain people are viewed in a particular way - by you or others.
The second step is to listen to the voices of those who are usually silenced. It can be easy to ignore and dismiss the viewpoints of others, especially if they spring from experiences that are foreign or unfamiliar. In the listening process, take note of both what is said and the emotions that are expressed. Better outcomes result when a broader range of perspectives is sought.
Third, take action on what you can. While it's not possible to change decades of structure overnight, small steps can be taken to change the composition of staffing to ensure women and people of colour have equal space on a team with men. Cultures that support poor behaviour can be challenged so that men and women are not put in positions where they are not safe.
The alternative - clinging to outdated thinking, digging in on preconceived positions and defending inherited biases - is not a sign of a government in touch with 21st-century Australia.
The nation of Australia was founded on principles that were accepted in their time. Some of those principles are no longer acceptable in broader Australian society. It is time for the Canberra bubble to burst and for biases that privilege, discriminate and abuse to be archived - for the health of the nation and those who seek to serve it.
- Bron Williams is a consultant and speaker who specialises in making bias conscious in the corporate environment.