Parliamentary Standards

House of Representatives, 9 February 2023

I first worked in this building in 1988 doing work experience for the then member for Fraser, John Langmore. I came back to work as a staffer for the late Senator Peter Cook from 1998 to 2000 and I've had the privilege of serving in this place as a member, first for Fraser and then for Fenner, since 2010. So I've seen the culture in the parliament evolve. I've seen it change from a building which was almost entirely a parliament of men to now being much more gender diverse. I've seen it become a little more caring and I've seen the rise of the #MeToo movement, that very welcome rally that said it was about time that we had gender equity in this country.

But other things haven't changed. This still remains one of the very few workplaces in Australia where it's considered acceptable to shout insults at your co-workers while they are trying to do their jobs. It still remains a place in which there are highly personal attacks made on people for political reasons, and the rise of anonymous social media has worsened that particular cesspool. We've seen pile-ons which have challenged the mental health of many. Just think about the impact on former Senator Nick Sherry from the partisan attacks which caused him to attempt to take his life. Many who have been in the eye of the storm during the 12 years that I've been in this parliament have spoken to me about the way in which that affects their mental health.

In courts, the Commonwealth seeks to be a model litigant. It seeks to behave in the courts as it would hope other litigants behave. So, too, we in this parliament should seek to set the standard. We should seek to be the kind of workplace we expect other workplaces in Australia to be. My former colleague at the Australian National University Prof. Deborah Cobb-Clark researched extensively the issue of sexual harassment and the way in which that widened the gender pay gap. Professor Cobb-Clark made the point that the impact of sexual harassment can be particularly pernicious when it prevents women from pursuing careers which are high-stress and require long and unsociable hours. In a workplace with sexual harassment, many talented women will simply choose not to put themselves into a position of vulnerability, which is effectively not to seek leadership roles in many organisations. Professor Cobb-Clark’s research showed that reducing sexual harassment has a massive impact on reducing the gender pay gap and on productivity because it's not just those women and their families and loved ones who benefit directly but the organisations themselves that are able to make productive use of their skills because they are pursuing high-impact careers. That's nowhere truer than in politics, where a culture of sexual harassment and sexual bullying is most likely to deter talented women, those who might feel that they have a contribution to make but simply aren't willing to put themselves into the cauldron of abuse and misogyny. One of the fears that I had during the worst experiences of sexism that I've seen in this building, the misogynistic attacks on former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, was that Prime Minister Gillard herself could handle it. But I worried about the number of talented women thinking about politics who looked at the signs that the former opposition leader stood in front of, looked at the callous treatment to which she was subjected, the misogyny and the abuse, and said, 'Politics isn't for me.' That was my greatest fear at the time.

These reforms we're discussing today are an important first step forward, but they won't be the final step. This will be an ongoing journey as the parliament seeks to set the standard for the Australian community. Like many others, I've benefited from the training that was provided on dealing with sexual harassment and bullying complaints. In my case, as for, I understand, a majority of senators and members, my training was provided by PwC's Julie McKay who formerly headed up UN Women. I want to acknowledge Julie for her thoughtful leadership and for the way in which, through that unstructured session, she was able to teach me a great deal. I believe she is somebody who has made a huge contribution to improving the culture of this place, and I thank her for that.

I thank, too, Kate Jenkins for her two important reports, Respect@Work and Set the Standard, which have brought together an enormous body of work and encouraged us to tackle these issues. I want to thank, too, the member for Newcastle, Sharon Claydon. I was one of those who spoke to the member for Newcastle's Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Standards and I provided evidence in camera relating to the ‘Ten Principles of Politics’ that I'd set up in my office. Some years ago, I worked with my staff to develop 10 principles that hang on the walls of our offices and seek to epitomise what we do. I've encouraged other members of parliament to adopt some principles document for themselves because many organisations, non-profit and for-profit alike, have mission statements, goals, codes of conduct, and yet we haven't had those. I seek leave to incorporate the ‘Ten Principles of Politics’ into Hansard.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows—

Principles of Politics

Office of Andrew Leigh MP

  1. How we practice politics can be as important as the policies we pursue. Since this is politics, we'll never be universally popular. But we should treat co-workers, constituents and colleagues with respect and dignity. This is especially important when dealing with vulnerable constituents.

  2. Our communications should try to engage with the better instincts of Australia, to tell stories, make new arguments, and convey fresh facts. When we dumb down debates and demonise our opponents, progressives lose. When we enrich the public conversation, we win.

  3. None of us would be here without the Labor Party. It is Australia's oldest and greatest political party, and will outlast all of us. We have a responsibility to cherish its traditions, make it stronger and more democratic, and help Labor win elections.

  4. When we cannot help someone, we should tell them honestly, and use that time to help others; particularly the most disadvantaged.

  5. We should be working on the most important things possible—big ideas, critical questions, major community issues. The only way to get the space to do this is to say no to less important priorities. We can do anything, but we cannot do everything.

  6. Experimenting is good, and learning from our mistakes is healthy—but only if we share what we've learned with our team and our Labor colleagues.

  7. Envy and hate are two of the biggest timewasters in politics. Media coverage is a means, not an end. Working in politics is a privilege, and we're lucky to do it. Our office should be the positive, respectful and safe work environment we would want for every employee in the country.

  8. Wherever possible, we should draw on the strengths of diversity, and collaborate with colleagues on policies, campaigns and events. Labor is the party of "we", not "me".

  9. Don't apologise for spending time with friends and family, exercising or reading fiction. Not only is socialising important in itself; a well-rounded life helps us do our jobs better. Strive for calmness, balance and gratitude.

  10. Act ethically, crack jokes when we can, and keep a sense of perspective. The typical career lasts around 80,000 hours. Let's make them count.

I now go to a number of recommendations in the report. It will be vital to have an external independent review, following up and ensuring that there is high-quality implementation right across a range of diverse workplaces. Recommendation 4 speaks about individual leadership and recognises that, in this place, the offices of members and senators can sometimes have a character that's a bit like the character of a small business. For those of us who are part of a major party, perhaps that's a franchise business, but each office operates differently and sometimes the standards of those offices can be very different. I've heard stories, for example, of staff from departments who worked in ministerial offices under the former government as departmental liaison officers. They were referred to by other members in that office not by their names, but by just as 'DLO'. 'Hey, DLO, go and do this,' or 'Hey, DLO, go and do that.' That's no way to treat a co-worker.

Recommendation 5 speaks about diversity among parliamentarians. I'm proud to stand here as a member of a party where, of the 103 members of the Labor caucus, 54 are women, and as part of an Albanese government in which half of the members of cabinet are women. Recommendation 7 goes to measurement and public reporting and focuses on diversity characteristics which I hope will go beyond gender to also look at race and ethnicity. Recommendation 10 speaks about everyday respect in the parliamentary chambers. Again, I hark back to that period from 2010 to 2013 in which then opposition leader Abbott spoke about the need for an election so the Prime Minister could 'make an honest woman of herself', in which then opposition leader Abbott stood in front of signs saying 'ditch the witch', in which then opposition leader Abbott would frequently refer in the parliament to 'Julia' rather than to 'the Prime Minister', as would have been done for a male prime minister. That low standard was something which Prime Minister Gillard didn't focus on. She didn't speak much about that behaviour. But, looking back, I feel that, even as a newly minted backbencher, I should have done more to call out the everyday sexism that I saw there in the House of Representatives chamber.

There will be monitoring, evaluation and continuous improvement, under recommendation 19, and I hope that will also include reporting, by party, of harassment claims. Finally, I want to thank the Leader of the House, Tony Burke, for the change to standing orders that allows me to go home to my kids at 6.30. That is, indeed, a way of setting the standard.

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  • Andrew Leigh Mp
    published this page in What's New 2023-02-09 16:12:41 +1100

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.