We are limping towards the finish line of 2021. This year has certainly been tumultuous, to say the least. Aside from lockdowns, climate catastrophe and the housing market crisis, we have also seen a reckoning of Australia's parliamentary workplace culture.
Inspired by Australian of the Year Grace Tame, former staffer Brittany Higgins sparked nationwide discussions of sexual assault and harassment in politics, and workplaces more generally. Once Ms Higgins ripped off the Band-Aid, many more reports of sexism, bullying, sexual harassment and assault spilled forth, revealing severe power imbalances and toxic work conditions.
Shocked by the torrent of allegations, lack of accountability and persistent inaction verging on disdain, over 100,000 women, victim-survivors and allies took to the streets of Australia to demand better. The Prime Minister initially responded in question time by arguing that we should be grateful our protests weren't met with bullets.
After weeks of pressure, the government established the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. The Set the Standard report, published last week, argued that Parliament should set the standard for workplace culture, not the bare minimum. Ms Jenkins heard from over 1700 people and 33 organisations, as well as over 900 survey respondents, and her findings are a damning indictment of the parliamentary workplace. She found that 51 per cent of those currently working in Parliament experienced bullying, sexual harassment, or sexual assault, while 63 per cent of women parliamentarians experienced sexual harassment compared with only 24 per cent of their male counterparts.
Importantly, the report identified several structural causes for misconduct, such as power imbalances, gender inequality and a lack of accountability. Risk factors were also identified, including unclear and inconsistent standards of behaviour, a leadership deficit, workplace dynamics (fear and loyalty), social conditions of work (fly-in-fly-out, significant alcohol use) and employment structures, conditions, and systems.
Based on these findings, the report put forward a framework for change with 28 recommendations. They include a statement of acknowledgment from parliamentary leaders, advancing gender equality as well as increasing the number of LGBTQIA+, disabled and First Nations parliamentarians and staffers, developing a centralised Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture to provide support, and professionalising management practices for MOP(S) Act employees. A key recommendation is the enacting of codes of conduct to clearly outline the responsibilities of all parliamentarians, staff, journalists and visitors in making parliament a safe, respectful and equitable workplace. The report recommends this should be enforced by an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission, which will feature an independent, confidential, fair, and transparent reports and complaints process.
While the report provides a blueprint for change based on extensive research and consultation, the question on the lips of many is how the government will respond. Will it take action and implement these recommendations? Or will it delay and distract with more spin and rhetoric?
If the government's response to the Respect@Work report is anything to go by, I'm not so hopeful. It sat on the report for over a year and only responded after a petition with 90,000 signatures demanding a full implementation of its recommendations was delivered to Parliament at the March4Justice rally. Mr Morrison also received criticism for implementing six out of the 12 recommendations and excluding the crucial "positive duty" clause from proposed legislation, despite Ms Jenkins imploring for its adoption.
Will Set the Standard meet the same fate? Such cynicism seems confirmed by the fact that Parliament will only be sitting for 10 days in the next eight months.
It took Mr Morrison 15 minutes to respond to this report with a press conference in which he admitted that he was "appalled" but unsurprised by its findings. However, he quickly tried to deflect accountability by insisting that a "multi-party process and approach" is needed. While he's correct, he needs to understand that, as the Prime Minister, he is responsible for leading this change. As Ms Tame tweeted soon after: "it rots from the top [and] change should be driven from the top down." Minutes into his press conference, Mr Morrison claimed "that Parliament is a safer workplace than when Brittany was there", yet again referring to a woman by her first name while contradicting the findings of the report. Days before the release, Mr Morrison was in the hotseat for the alleged mistreatment and bullying of backbencher Bridget Archer while, hours later, Liberal senators were accused of directing dog noises at Senator Lambie. If this is safer, I shudder to think of what the workplace culture was like in 2019.
If we want to see real change, the government needs to implement all recommendations as soon as possible. Dr Maria Maley, a senior lecturer in political science at the Australian National University, told me she is "hopeful that significant change will come [from the review] and it will be seen as a turning point in how Parliament manages its own culture and workplace" but noted that "it won't be easy and they will need broad commitment to act on the recommendations". Professor Michelle Ryan, director of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership, pointed out that it's "not enough to send the review off to a committee and do the bare minimum", urging all parties and independents to "commit to fully implementing the recommendations ... to ensure that Parliament does 'set the standard'."
We do not have time to waste. Women deserve to be safe in Parliament House, and the Jenkins inquiry provides clear instructions on how to achieve a more equitable and respectful workplace. We must ensure Mr Morrison does not bury this issue, that it stays at the top of the agenda. It should not take another March4Justice to pressure the government to implement these recommendations. If it comes to that, however, 100,000 Australians at least are ready and waiting.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow and lecturer in Australian politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.