Against the backdrop of a cold and wintry Black Mountain, Caitlin Figueiredo asked a question of those who had gathered to hear her speak: was it is ethical for her to continue her work? As the founder and chief executive of Jasiri Australia, a youth-led movement that fights for increased representation of women in politics, Figueiredo has supported more than 500 girls and young women interested in politics through the "Girls Takeover Parliament" program since 2017. Yet the program did not run in 2021.
The sexual assault and harassment allegations that continue to pour from Parliament House have had a deep impact on girls and young women across the country, especially those who previously dreamed of entering politics. Figueiredo notes that, in previous years, 95 per cent of program alumni wished to be involved in politics - now, that figure is only 35 per cent. While they remain politically engaged, many girls and women simply do not feel safe, "they don't feel like their voices are being heard and they don't feel like women in politics are being supported or even considered as human beings". How can we encourage girls and young women to enter a political sphere that threatens their safety, and is it ethical to do so? What is clear is that deep change is needed in our political culture.
On July 15-16, I and colleagues Emeritus Professor Marian Sawer and Natalie Barr, in affiliation with the Global Institute for Women's Leadership and the Australian Political Science Association, organised a summit at the Australian National University, with the aim of making Parliament a safer workplace by developing a model Code of Conduct. We heard from national and international experts, politicians and staffers, including Elizabeth Reid AO, the world's first women's adviser to a head of government, appointed by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1973.
As former Labor cabinet minister Kate Ellis made clear in her keynote address, cultural issues are at the heart of the mistreatment of women in Parliament. From the way that women are belittled when they run for preselection, as Julia Banks recently detailed in her memoir Power Play: Breaking through Bias, Barriers & Boys Clubs; the slut-shaming they experience once elected, brought to light by Sarah Hanson-Young; or the combination of racism and sexism used against Women of Colour, as we heard from Labor MP Dr Anne Aly. This culture is reinforced in media coverage that frames women politicians as out of place or punishes those who call attention to sexism - witness the media backlash that followed Julia Gillard's infamous "misogyny speech".
Excluding historical complaints ignores the psychological impact of a traumatic event.
It is important to remember that Parliament is, at the end of the day, a workplace, and that all who work there deserve the right both to feel and be safe. Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Melissa Donnelly spoke at the ANU about the drastic power imbalances and high intensity power structures with which political staffers must contend, and which enable a culture of harassment and bullying. Like Brittany Higgins, many staffers feel they've landed their "dream job" and are too afraid to speak openly about their experiences of bullying and harassment, lacking a clear sense of their rights or the confidence of job security.
Drawing together the many lessons and insights gained from the summit, we have submitted a model Code of Conduct to the Kate Jenkins' Independent Inquiry into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces. Looking to comparable codes in New Zealand and the UK, we provide clear guidelines on acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and treatment of others. Parliament should be a safe and inclusive workplace, where diversity is valued and bullying, harassment and assault are unacceptable. An optional one-hour training session to help MPs deal with sexual assault, bullying and harassment is not going to cut it. We recommend that training should be mandatory for all staff, not just MPs or staffers, and should focus on harassment prevention and office management. The code needs to be binding and would apply to all, MPs, staffers, visitors, or volunteers alike.
There is a complete absence of accountability and a lack of consequences for perpetrators of sexual harassment, bullying and assault inside Parliament House. We recommend that an independent authority - such as a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner - should be created to oversee the code, support harassment prevention, and handle complaints in a way that will not simply re-traumatise complainants. This body should be completely independent of parliamentarians, parties, and government, and should be evidence-based, trauma-informed and victim-focused.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has previously indicated that the independent body set up to address allegations in Parliament House will not consider historical sexual assault complaints. Yet it is crucial that the complaints process investigate current and historical allegations. Excluding historical complaints ignores the psychological impact of a traumatic event and the time it can take to build the courage required to report. Evidence from the UK suggests that the inclusion of historical complaints can also influence current behaviour and workplace norms.
To truly shift the culture within Parliament, this code must be binding and must receive cross-party support. It must be enacted, not just tabled by the government as was the case with the Respect@Work report. Until that happens, we must sustain public attention and pressure on this government.
Returning to the question posed by Figueiredo at the beginning of this piece - is it ethical to encourage young women to enter politics - I'd argue that we must make urgent change to create a more inclusive and professional political culture before we expose more women to potential harm. Enacting a binding Code of Conduct is a solid step in this direction.
Otherwise, paraphrasing Figueiredo, "how can we expect young women to aspire to careers in political leadership knowing that this toxic sexist cover-up culture awaits them?"
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow and lecturer in Australian politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.
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