OPINION

Her rights at work: how will women be treated in the new parliament?

Independent candidate Zoe Daniel defeated Liberal MP Tim Wilson for the seat of Goldstein in an election that saw a record number of women elected to Parliament. Picture: AAP
Independent candidate Zoe Daniel defeated Liberal MP Tim Wilson for the seat of Goldstein in an election that saw a record number of women elected to Parliament. Picture: AAP

A record number of women have been elected to the Australian Parliament. Anger about the Coalition Government's lack of action on gender equality has been one of the issues propelling the teal independents into parliament.

What will be their experience of parliament as a workplace? Will it be better than the experience of previous women?

Until the advent of the #MeToo movement, women politicians rarely spoke out about their experience of the parliamentary workplace. Among others, Senator Penny Wong has expressed her regrets that the abuse was not called out earlier.

It was only after 2017 that we began to hear about the extent of sexual harassment and other kinds of harassment and bullying experienced by women politicians and women staffers.

Until women in parliament were emboldened by the #MeToo movement, they stayed largely silent, believing they must show they were a 'good team player' if they were to have a political career. Any complaint was likely to be weaponised by an opposing party or opposing faction within their own party.

This political logic was not restricted to Australian parliaments. Surveys in other Westminster countries since 2017 consistently show that about 30 per cent of women working in parliament have experienced some form of sexual harassment but remained silent about it.

Apart from the Westminster tradition of adversarial politics, another obstacle to improving workplace standards has been the tradition of parliamentary privilege, protecting the conduct of parliamentarians from external regulation or 'interference'.

There have been entrenched beliefs that elected members should only be accountable to their constituents for their conduct, which would otherwise be protected.

Essentially, as found by Dame Laura Cox in the UK, this has meant that there was no sanction for misconduct by politicians as employers (or indeed as parliamentary colleagues).

In March 2021 angry women demonstrated outside parliaments around Australia. Thanks to Brittany Higgins they had heard accounts of how dangerous the parliamentary workplace could be for women. When an alleged case of rape had taken place inside a ministerial office two years before, it had reportedly been hushed up as a 'political problem' and nobody was held accountable.

March 4 Justice protest at Parliament house, Canberra. Brittany Higgins speaks to the crowd. Picture: Karleen Minney.

March 4 Justice protest at Parliament house, Canberra. Brittany Higgins speaks to the crowd. Picture: Karleen Minney.

Some 10,000 women demonstrated outside the Australian Parliament with signs saying things such as 'crime scene' and 'Why are women not safe in the most secure building in Australia?'. Inside, independents held up signs in the House of Representatives saying 'Enough is Enough'.

One week later, government staffers were found to be sharing a video of a male staffer masturbating on a female MP's desk. In 2021 no fewer than four books appeared, starting with one co-authored by former Deputy Labor Leader Jenny Macklin, telling of experiences of sexism in the Australian Parliament. Under mounting pressure, the Morrison government commissioned an independent inquiry from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner into Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces.

The Jenkins Report was on an epic scale, in terms both of evidence amassed and the comprehensive nature of its recommendations. It recommended both an independent complaints mechanism and parliamentary codes of conduct.

At the federal level, the introduction of a parliamentary code of conduct had been repeatedly rejected, most recently in August 2020. The major parties were agreed that: "The best scrutiny mechanism for the conduct of parliamentarians is regular free and fair elections."

Despite being the source of this belief, the UK had started moving away from it by the mid-1990s, adopting a code of conduct and a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Initially, the new rules in the UK were concerned with financial probity, as a result of the 'cash for questions' scandal, rather than misconduct such as sexual harassment. The latter was not addressed until the 'Pestminster' scandals some 20 years later.

But internationally it is now recognised that parliamentary codes need to spell out and prohibit workplace harms such as sexual harassment and bullying, as well dealing with integrity issues.

So what do new and returning parliamentarians need to do to ensure parliament is a model workplace rather than a toxic one? The first thing is to support the work of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Standards to ensure that codes of conduct are in place by the end of the year. Second is to ensure accountability for upholding these standards, through the establishment of a truly independent and effective Parliamentary Standards Commission, as recommended by the Jenkins Report.

It is only once these basic steps have been taken that we can have any confidence that women in all their diversity will have equal opportunity to perform their representative roles in the Australian Parliament.

  • Emeritus Professor Marian Sawer is an expert in gender politics and policy based at The Australian National University.
This story Her rights at work: how will women be treated in the new parliament? first appeared on The Canberra Times.