In 1984, under the guiding hand of Susan Ryan, the first female Labor MP to sit in cabinet, the Sex Discrimination Act was passed by Federal Parliament. It was a trailblazing moment for women. While not widely heralded at the time, included in the act was a decree making sexual harassment in the workplace unlawful, a first anywhere in the world.
And yet, 37 years later, an extensive independent review of workplace culture at Parliament House has revealed sexual harassment and bullying are almost commonplace. The report, by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, found one-third of people working in Commonwealth parliamentary offices have personally experienced sexual harassment and more than half have experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault.
This is a damning indictment of the most powerful democratic institution in the nation, one which is meant to attract and retain Australia’s best and brightest to do important work. Instead, what is portrayed in the report is a workplace that leaves many of its more junior staff vulnerable to myriad forms of workplace abuse.
And that abuse is reinforced by a culture in which, as one person described it, “there are no ramifications for bad behaviour because there is no risk of MPs getting fired or otherwise being held accountable for their actions”. The report is not afraid to pinpoint the problem, stating “power, including power imbalances and the misuse of power, is one of the primary drivers of misconduct”.
Such conclusions will probably not shock most who work in Federal Parliament. But it should shame every MP and senior staff member in the building that it was not one of them who finally blew the whistle. Instead, triggering change took a former junior ministerial staffer going public over an allegation of rape.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has released her recommendations for workplace change at Federal Parliament.Credit:Arsineh Houspian
When Brittany Higgins spoke out in February, it struck a chord for women around Australia and forced Prime Minister Scott Morrison to finally put the culture of Parliament under the kind of scrutiny that was long overdue. While the extent of the problem is laid out for all to see, the most encouraging aspect of the report is the comprehensive nature of the recommendations.
It calls for a new code of conduct for parliamentarians, staff and other workers in Parliament House; setting up a new Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission within a year; setting up an Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture within a year to act as an independent human resources branch; and establishing fair dismissal rules.
Ms Jenkins also recommended that to begin the healing process, the Speaker and Senate President along with other parliamentary leaders make a formal statement acknowledging the harm caused to staff and politicians by bullying, sexual harassment and assault. Some recommendations might meet resistance.
This government has blocked external scrutiny of many kinds, so an independent standards commission might be unpopular in certain quarters. But in The Age’s view, that and a professional human resources department are the bare minimum owed to those who make their way to Canberra to work.
According to Susan Ryan, when the 1984 Sex Discrimination bill was first introduced to Parliament, it was met “with sustained, vociferous and irrational opposition … opponents claimed the bill would bring about the end of the family, ruin the economy, undermine the male labour force, and destroy Christianity and the Australian way of life.”
Change is hard. Ryan showed it could be done. Brittany Higgins showed it could be done. Changing the culture of Parliament will take commitment and courage from our most senior politicians. With Ms Jenkins’ report in hand, there is now no excuse for them not to leave Australia’s most powerful Parliament a better place to work than the one they first entered.
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