My high school politics teacher, Pat Smith, who I have mentioned before in these pages, had a brutal adage - "two things rise to the top; cream and scum". That disturbing assessment has stayed with me as I have looked at the world around me - in workplaces or other organisational hierarchies. Whether it is an adage of enduring truth or one that can be re-engineered by the quality of leadership of those rising to the top (with an opportunity to model a new way forward) is something that has pre-occupied me since studying politics as a school girl. For there is no doubt, leadership determines the culture of organisations.
This is one of the powerful lessons of the many reviews conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, including her most recent Set the Standards report reviewing Parliament as a safe and equal workplace. Reports in themselves do not change behaviour and the many insights of the Set the Standards report beg to be repeated given the urgent nature of the work left undone.
The urgency of this work was again highlighted by the recent attention given to the internal machinations of the Labor party following the premature death of Senator Kimberley Kitching. But what we didn't see in the daily drum beat of analysis devoted to Senator Kitching's death and the posthumous allegations of bullying behaviour by party higher-ups (that have been denied) was how central and relevant the Set the Standards report was to the discussion. Yet a great deal of the commentary in and out of Parliament sought to portray the story soon after Senator Kitching's death, as part of the "rough and tumble" of politics and without referring to the Jenkins report. It indicated either ignorance of its contents or an appalling loss of corporate memory.
For one of the important messages of the Jenkins report (easily found in the summary alone) includes how the commission consistently heard from participants in the review about how they valued the opportunity to contribute to decision-making at a national level and to make a difference to people's lives. Yet what got in the way of them doing that positive work, included the many obstacles presented by the multiple and distinct cultures operating across Parliament. "These factors include the dynamic nature of the work, the influence of political parties and the pressure to get elected and stay elected. Elections, reshuffles and other transitions can also reset, change or reinforce culture. Further, the commission heard that the press gallery also plays a role in shaping culture. The proximity to power influences the workplace culture in parliamentary departments."
These different elements are described as "the complex ecosystem of workplaces which feature across Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces" and we are watching them at this very moment in the lead-up to the next election. One of those elements is the significant role played by political parties in enabling people to enter the Parliament and how they dictate how their representatives operate in that system. Australia's political parties, all of them, for too long, have maintained their own cultures, their own power dynamics speaking to the very essence of the Jenkins report findings.
One aspect of behaviour drawn out in the recent commentary was Senator Kitching's personal networks across the party divide, said to have led to distrust by some of her colleagues. This alleged distrust speaks to the underlying concerns so many in our nation have for the way politics is being played out. The public is calling out for politicians who are committed to acting on and developing policy that assists the whole nation. Public servants are there to assist them to do that very work. This must be essential to the drive to public office, and to ensuring those who are elected act on the pressing issues of our time that apply to everyone, no matter who forms government and no matter the party one represents.
We have seen instances of collaborative approaches in the past. Back in the early 2000s, four senators from different political parties worked collaboratively to overturn the ministerial veto on the medical abortion drug RU486. These members of the Parliamentary Friendship Group on Population and Development, Senators Clare Moore from Labor, Lyn Allison from the Democrats, Judith Troeth from the Liberal Party and Fiona Nash from the Nationals shared the view that the veto needed to be removed. As a result, they co-sponsored the Therapeutic Goods Amendment Act (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of RU486) Bill 2005 to change the law. Those politicians built the necessary coalitions in the Parliament to advance policy. This should not be seen as a threat to a party when this happens but as a commitment to the nation's future.
And there is hope that such a future is ahead. The Set the Standards review affirmed that despite the volume of information the commission had to deal with, it remains optimistic that the culture can be changed, concluding that: "An opportunity exists for leaders not only to set the standard, but to set in motion a program of lasting reform."
This lasting reform must also be initiated within the party system. There are signs that this may be one of the outcomes of the next federal election. Individual women who have not been part of the party system have been inspired by the earlier work of former Indi MP Cathy McGowan and her successor Helen Haines, who are representatives of their electorates, not of their party - to stand up and have a go. This intervention may be the catalyst needed at this time in Australia's political evolution to ensure the "rough and tumble", the toxicity that we are witnessing, will no longer be the norm. Those new representatives will not only directly represent the people of their electorate, but they will also have the potential of forcing the parties to lift their behaviour. If a commitment, by all within Parliament, to the greater good is the result - the cream will have finally risen and will be able to set the standard.
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