At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
In April of this year — after Brittany Higgins alleged she had been raped by a colleague in a Parliament House office, and a different Liberal staffer alleged that she'd been forced out of politics following the end of an affair with high-profile Minister Alan Tudge — another woman said that Australia's federal parliament was "the most unsafe workplace in the country". (Tudge later said that he "regrets [his] actions immensely" and "the hurt that Ms Miller has experienced".)
That woman was Julia Banks, a former Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party and therefore supposedly one of the most powerful people in the building. Banks alleged that she'd been non-consensually touched on her thigh by a colleague, before being bullied out of her job.
Parliament House - the highest office in the country - should be a leading example of workplace safety. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that what Higgins experienced "should not have happened". But the very systems and processes on which our federal parliament is built have made it the ideal hunting ground for predators.
There's No Central Human Resources
For starters, there is no independent HR department to whom politicians and their staff can make complaints.
Ultimately, each politician is the direct employer of their parliamentary staff.
Members of Parliament (MPs) are given a budget of taxpayer money that they can use to hire employees. Every office can be structured slightly differently, but most have, at the very least, then chief of staff, a parliamentary advisor, and a media advisor.
At the moment, if a staffer is experiencing sexual harassment or discrimination, the main people they could raise a complaint with are the chief of staff in the office, or their politician; “probably the very person they have a problem with” independent federal MP Zali Steggall tells Refinery29 Australia.
“You have no independent means of compliance or of investigating a complaint without putting your employment in direct jeopardy. Which is just completely contrary to any kind of good HR practices,” Steggall says.
When the news of Higgins’ alleged assault broke, Steggall says that she and fellow politicians realised they didn’t know what the process was in Parliament House for helping complainants.
“I vividly remember coming from Question Time and having a meeting with Helen Haines and Rebecca Sharkey [Haines is an independent MP, while Sharkey is part of a minor party]. Our three chiefs of staff came too and we each have female chiefs of staff. So we’re six women there… And we were all shocked and really dismayed that if one of our staffers had such an experience, we had no clear answer of what the right process would have been,” she said.
“There is obviously reporting to the police. But what resources did we have available to provide assistance? What would your appropriate course of action be? I think it was really was telling that we couldn’t identify very clearly what the support mechanism was… there was no training, there was no advice.”
Most political parties tend to have internal processes for handling complaints from staff, away from the public eye.
Politicians want power
But this brings us to the second fundamental problem: parliament is made up of elected officials and parties vying for votes and political dominance. Sexual assault and harassment complaints, if made public, could cost a party its seats, its support, and the next election.
As federal Labor MP Dr Anne Aly says, the problem is “political parties that will protect their members and staff at any cost in order to avoid any kind of scrutiny of brand damage”.
This is the situation that Brittany Higgins says she faced after she reported her allegation of sexual assault to her boss, Senator Linda Reynolds, and Reynolds’ chief of staff. The meeting took place in the room where Higgins says she was assaulted (a decision that the government has since acknowledged was a mistake).
Higgins says that she was made to feel as though reporting the assault to the police could damage her career. She also claims that she was given two options: go home, or go to Western Australia to work on Senator Reynold’s election campaign in the lead up to the 2019 federal election. She chose the latter, afraid that if she didn’t, her career in politics would be over.
Leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, told Refinery29 Australia over email that a “party-first, win at all costs attitude in parliamentary workplaces can discourage staff or MPs reporting complaints” in the first place.
Rather than investigating the complaint and firing the abuser, Bandt says “the open secret of some MPs’ or senior staff’s abusive behaviour has been managed through moving staff on [to a different politician’s office] or through counselling victims out of ‘making a big deal of it’ for the sake of the office. This has got to stop”.
Many staffers don’t have a clear job description, performance criteria or pathways for promotion. Staff who speak up against workplace harassment could have their responsibilities taken away as punishment, without any way of showing that it is malicious.
Plus, Bandt points out, many staffers can be fired with no notice, which “further discourages [them] from rocking the boat”.
Fear over career consequences
Like Higgins, political staff may fear that filing a workplace complaint with their politician or party could spell the end of their career, and not only in politics.
Steggall says that she has spoken with ex-staffers who have been “essentially blacklisted” by big accounting, law and consulting firms who want to stay in a political parties’ good books. Why? The federal government – as well as any political party, whether or not they are in power – brings a lot of business to the private sector.
Some firms, according to Steggall, won’t hire someone who has made a complaint against a politician or is in a political parties’ bad books, for fear that it will cost them a big government contract.
“It's just, it's not a healthy environment, because it's an environment where you have to toe the line to stay within the system,” Steggal says.
In addition to these structural problems, parliament is plagued with a toxic, misogynistic workplace culture.
Bandt says that we saw this in how some in parliament responded to allegations by Brittany Higgins, and to separate allegations by a different accuser against former attorney-general, Christian Porter. Both sets of allegations are denied.
“The first reaction is always to disbelieve, to downplay, to obfuscate and blame shift, and, and to be primarily concerned for the reputation of the accused and the party,” he said.
“For a long time, the permissive environment within parliamentary workplaces, a ‘what happens in Canberra stays in Canberra’ attitude was encouraged – or at least had people turn a blind eye.”
So what can we do about it?
Which raises the question: what can be done to make parliament a safe place for staff?
The government already has a list of first steps. Following Higgins’ allegations in February, Scott Morrison asked Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster to conduct a review into the parliamentary workplace.
Foster’s report made ten recommendations, including the establishment of an independent complaints process for serious incidents in parliament house.
The government has committed to implementing all ten recommendations. It also announced the launch of a new independent complaints mechanism, and there is now a new parliamentary workplace support service that can provide advice and ongoing trauma-informed support to complainants.
Though, as Higgins pointed out, it was interesting to see the service advertised offering support to those who had been accused of bad behaviour.
Bandt also says that the government needs to introduce an enforceable Code of Conduct for all politicians and senior staff, with real consequences for those who breach it. Greens senator and spokesperson for women, Larissa Waters, introduced a bill to establish a Code of Conduct for all politicians and staff last year. But the bill was rejected by a senate committee dominated by the Liberal, National and Labor parties, and voted down in parliament.
But the government also needs to tackle the problem at its source, and reshape the culture and sexist attitudes towards workplace harassment that exist in parliament house.
Bandt also says we need regular, mandatory training for all MPs on creating safe workplaces, managing complaints and supporting staff.
Back in July, the government came under fire after announcing a training session on sexual harassment for MPs would be optional and only go for one hour. A week later, they announced that the training would actually be mandatory for all government ministers, and would consider publishing a “name and shame” list of politicians who didn’t attend.
Both Bandt and Steggall agree that to really shift the culture, we need to dismantle the boys’ club in parliament house. That means helping more women and gender-diverse people successfully run for politics.
But Bandt takes it one step further, saying that to really stamp out sexism and misogyny in the workplace, we need to start younger. “At a broader, systemic level – we need comprehensive, expert-led, age-appropriate Respectful Relationships training throughout school so we don’t get entitled young men who have never suffered any consequences for bad behaviour becoming entitled middle-aged men running the country”.