Australia has been rocked in recent months by numerous sexual assault allegations spilling out from the previously guarded corridors of Parliament House.
These allegations ignited protests around Australia, with over 100,000 people taking to the streets for the March 4 Justice rallies in March to protest sexual violence and harassment in politics.
Memoirs from Julia Banks and Kate Ellis have also made it abundantly clear that sexism within the walls of Parliament is a widespread issue affecting women across party lines. The workplace culture within parliamentary offices needs to change.
In the face of mounting pressure, in March the federal government established the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission and led by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins.
Referred to as the "Kate Jenkins inquiry", the review aims to help create a "safe and respectful work environment" by investigating parliamentary workplace culture. Jenkins will release a publicly available summary of her findings at the end of the year.
One key element in this is developing a code of conduct for Parliament. A code of conduct is an integral step toward ensuring a safe parliamentary workplace, and has been successfully initiated in several other countries.
The Canadian Parliament, for example, adopted a harassment policy for staff in 2014, updated earlier this year, and mandates training on harassment and violence prevention for all new MPs and staff, to be repeated every three years. Canada has also adopted a separate code that deals with sexual harassment between members - considered to be the first of its kind.
In the United Kingdom, independent inquiries were conducted in the wake of the 2017 "Pestminster" scandal, resulting in policies that target bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, as well as the establishment of an independent complaints and grievance scheme.
Closer to home, the New Zealand Parliament created a new code of conduct last year, signed by all parties, following an independent inquiry into bullying and harassment of staffers commissioned by the Speaker, Trevor Mallard. This outlined seven clear commitments, including a requirement to speak up after witnessing unacceptable behaviour, to use positions of power to help rather than harm others, and to create an environment that encourages diverse perspectives where people feel safe and valued. These efforts demonstrate a path that could also be adopted in the Australian Parliament.
Australia - once a leader in gender-equality policies but now sadly lagging behind - could again lead. But this would require serious structural and cultural change.
The Global Institute for Women's Leadership at the Australian National University is lending its voice and powerful insights to this vital issue. This week my colleagues and I have hosted a major summit, with the aim of developing a model behavioural standard for the Australian Parliament.
Bringing together politicians, staffers, key stakeholders and academic experts, the workshop has combined the insights of leading scholars with the lived experiences of those who have worked in Parliament.
We have come together as a coalition of leaders and researchers to bring the model code to the attention of those with the power to implement it. Making Parliament a safe place for both politicians and staffers is essential to creating a gender-equal institution.
Through this, we hope to contribute to broader efforts aimed at making Parliament a safe and gender-equal place where all can perform their duties to the best of their abilities. Our hope is that the workshop will be an important driver for developing policy positions around parliamentary reform, and the resulting model code of conduct will be formally submitted to the Kate Jenkins inquiry.
As part of our submission, we are putting together a list of recommendations based on key issues and discussions arising from the workshop. These may include the drawing up of a formal code of conduct to define acceptable behaviour, the creation of an independent oversight and complaints handling body, the introduction of mandatory training for MPs and staff on preventing and appropriately responding to harassment, and the creation of a transparent reporting process.
This workshop has been an important step towards ensuring Federal Parliament is a safe and welcoming environment for women. However, we must continue this effort by advocating for genuine reform that builds on this inquiry. The Respect@Work report released at the beginning of 2020, also conducted by Jenkins, was tabled by this government for over a year. We cannot risk the current inquiry meeting the same fate.
Most importantly, we must also maintain public pressure demanding gender equity and parliamentary reform, and promoting a national conversation on what is needed to make Parliament a gender-equal workplace.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow and lecturer at the ANU Global Institute for Women's Leadership, and co-convenor of the "Parliament as a Gendered Workplace" summit taking place in Canberra and online over Thursday and Friday.