It's now pretty widely accepted that an examination of the culture of Federal Parliament is not just necessary but long overdue - as recent events attest. But if genuine, long-term cultural reform is to be achieved, the spotlight needs to shine more brightly on the party-political processes that lead to candidates being nominated to stand for election in the first place.
It is highly improbable that those who go on to win a seat in Federal Parliament suddenly develop controlling, bullying and misogynistic personalities after entering Parliament. Rather, it is much more likely that they bring these undesirable and culturally destructive qualities with them to their new role, often along with a sense of entitlement and a tendency to manipulate systems and processes to achieve what are best described as ambitions that exceed capabilities.
MPs exhibiting these tendencies are more likely to tolerate - and perhaps even seek - similar traits in the staff they hire to advise and assist them.
I hasten to add that the characteristics referred to above are not common to the majority of MPs, who diligently go about their public service role in a professional manner, serving the public interest. However, there have been, and still are, a sufficient number of parliamentarians whose words and deeds exhibit unacceptable personality traits for the public servant/public interest role they are elected to fulfil.
Unfortunately for every MP, those who are disproportionately driven by ego and a heightened need to exercise power create the impression in the public's mind that they typify all parliamentarians. Independent surveys conducted to gauge the public's perception of parliamentarians support this misguided impression.
For parliamentary culture to change, the system by which the major political parties select candidates to stand for office needs reforming. Too many parliamentarians driven solely by ego gain power through questionable processes. These include factional deals, working as political staffers (often for senior MPs), gaining the backing of parliamentary or administrative party leaders, and in the case of the Labor Party, the backing of particular unions.
Considering the tiny percentage of voters who belong to a political party or union, do these processes deliver a truly democratic method of selection? And do they deliver the best candidates to stand for office?
There is also the unethical practice of branch stacking. It has been, and continues to be, a serious problem for both the Liberal and Labor parties, distorting the process of candidate selection. In fairness to both parties, they are striving to eliminate this unacceptable practice - but the evidence suggests they aren't having a great deal of long-term success.
We also need to look at the "arrangement" within major parties that the seat of a sitting member should not be contested by a candidate from the same party. Why have parties devised such a protection scheme? How can it be justified in a country that claims to have a democratic electoral system?
This understanding protects those MPs who hold a safe seat and, even in these more volatile electoral times, that's a great deal of our parliamentarians. Sitting members in safe seats are, in effect, being given a full-time job for as long as they want it, with potentially better candidates excluded from consideration by default.
There is also the less common but still practised procedure whereby former state politicians are given safe passage into Federal Parliament through the backing of powerful players in their party.
The opportunity to stand for election to the House of Representatives or the Senate should not be treated as a gift to certain party faithful.
Many of these party-devised candidate selection processes have delivered to Capital Hill representatives who fail to understand or accept that public office is a public trust. Their subsequent conduct casts a slur on the reputation of all MPs, and that of Federal Parliament itself.
If parliamentary culture is to be reformed, these party-political selection processes should be forensically examined. Not by the parties themselves, either, as it is well proven that Caesar judging Caesar is not an effective way to achieve meaningful change.
An independent panel with proven expertise in transforming culture and in parliamentary studies, with no previous or current party affiliations, is required.
The problem with this suggestion is that those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo are the only people with the power to establish an inquiry, and to implement the recommendations put forward by the panel. The chances of that happening will depend on the degree to which the parliamentary wings of political parties, in particular, are genuinely concerned about and committed to changing parliamentary culture at the federal level.
- Dr Colleen Lewis is an honorary professor at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute.