Working with woman makes me better MP - Speech, House of Representatives


Today marks one year to the day since Lisa Wilkinson's interview with Brittany Higgins and Samantha Maiden's reporting. Samantha wrote today:

One year ago today, on the morning of February 15, @newscomauHQ published the first interview with Brittany Higgins. A lot of things have happened in intervening year. Good & bad. I remain proud of the work we did & grateful she chose to speak.

Fiat justitia ruat caelum

This, as I'm sure all honourable members know, is Latin for 'let justice be done, though the heavens fall'.

The #MeToo movement has reshaped the conversation over sexual harassment. The important contributions from Jess Hill, whose terrific book is titled See What You Made Me Do, Rosie Batty's time as Australian of the Year and the book Enough is Enough by the member for Jagajaga, Kate Thwaites, and her predecessor Jenny Macklin have highlighted the importance of reducing the scourge of sexual harassment.

This is a simple matter of right and wrong, but if you also need an economic argument to go along with it, it would be that sexual harassment is a huge drain on productivity. Australia faces a large gender pay gap which is closing at an extraordinarily glacial pace. That gender pay gap appears to be highest in professional occupations, and one reason for that, according to research by my former ANU colleague Deborah Cobb-Clark, now a professor at the University of Sydney, is the prevalence of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment often deters women from taking on jobs that involve long and irregular hours where they may be dealing with sexual harassment from co-workers or clients. Australia would not only be a more just country if we had less sexual harassment, we would be a richer and more productive nation as well.

As Jess Hill told me in a podcast that I do, The Good Life: 'The world has changed, and I went from a position where I didn't even know if I could use the word "patriarchy" in a book without coming across as some sort of, you know, radical man hater.' She said that changed because of the #MeToo movement. ‘That changed because the world was ready for this change and was ready to start making invisible systems visible.’

That recognition of the challenge of sexual harassment is one that those of us on the Labor side saw in full throttle during the 2010-2013 parliamentary term, in which Australian's first female Prime Minister was subjected to an extraordinary level of gendered attacks from an opposition leader who called for an election so that, as he put it, she could ‘make an honest Prime Minister of herself’ and who stood in front of signs describing the Prime Minister in gendered terms. This sort of gendered attack was levelled at the person who held the highest office in the land and who is so often referred to in this place by her first name, rather than being accorded the respect that Australia's Prime Minister deserves.

We saw at that time that those extraordinary attacks flowed through to women's willingness to enter politics. Some were fired up by it, but some looked at it and thought that there were other occupations that they would choose instead and that that level of sexual harassment was not something that they would subject themselves to.

The issue of sexual harassment of parliamentary workplaces has arisen in other countries as well. In Britain, the allegations of sexual harassment in November 2017 led to the creation of a cross-party working group on an independent complaints and grievance policy. Dame Laura Cox's report was published in October 2018 and, ultimately, led to the establishment of an independent expert panel to consider cases against MPs in June 2020. Australia is running behind the United Kingdom in dealing with this issue.

I want to acknowledge the hard work of Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, in bringing down the important report Set the standard. As that report notes, parliament should not be the floor for workplace culture, but should set the standard. Just as the Commonwealth, when it goes into a court of law, is expected to behave as a model litigant, this place should be a model for other workplaces. Yet, it is very clear from the surveys that were done by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, that it is anything but.

Thirty-seven per cent of people working in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces had experienced some form of bullying, with one respondent saying, 'Frequently, like at least every week, the advice was to go cry in the toilet so that nobody can see you, because that's what it's like up there.' One in three people working in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. One spoke of aspiring male politicians who, in one case, thought nothing of 'picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom, comments about appearance—you know, the usual; the culture allowed it'.

Over half of all people currently working in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault. Among female parliamentarians, 63 per cent reported sexual harassment compared to 24 per cent of male parliamentarians. I note that the rate of sexual harassment experienced by female parliamentarians is higher than the national average for women, which is 39 per cent. Respondents spoke about the culture in which individuals responsible for misconduct are an ‘open secret’ that nobody does anything to address and in which it was known that the perpetrator couldn't lose their job and it was expected that they wouldn't face any sanctions.

The report made a number of recommendations, one of which was a statement of acknowledgement, which the Prime Minister and the Labor leader spoke to in this place last Wednesday. That was an important act. It would have been better had the government brought to hear that statement some of those who had been affected by the behaviour that led to the commissioning of the Jenkins report. That was done in the case of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations; it should have been done in this instance.

There is a cross-party working group which will explore the creation of an independent parliamentary standards commission, and I hope that that commission will have some of the character of the British complaints procedure which ensures that the complaints are dealt with outside the regular parliamentary processes. The review also suggests that there should be consistent and comprehensive alcohol policies across Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces. The occasional drink probably isn't a problem. Drunkenness, though, we well know, in this place and in other places can be associated with misbehaviour.

The report also made clear that the number of women in senior positions is a core determinant of misconduct. I went to the Parliamentary Library's latest figures on the gender breakdown of parliamentarians across both houses. Currently, among Labor representatives, 48.9 per cent are female; among Liberal representatives, 26.7 per cent; and among National Party representatives, 28.6 per cent. So nearly half of Labor representatives are women, while in the coalition the figure is barely above a quarter. Across other parliaments, I note that in Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT a majority of Labor representatives are women. Indeed, in Tasmania and the ACT, a majority of all representatives in the parliament are women. That must change the culture. It must make a difference.

I acknowledge a number of initiatives that have been important in helping to shape change. The Girls Takeover Parliament initiative recognises the value of having young women spend time in parliamentary offices. Last year in a parliamentary speech I quoted Sharmini Caldwell, who joined my office as part of that initiative. She said: 'It's not up to women alone. There is a responsibility on men to do better and to ensure that the men around them do better.'

The previous Labor speakers have highlighted the importance of reform of question time. I think we need to acknowledge that question time is a bizarre institution. Is there any other workplace in Australia where it would be considered acceptable to shout insults at your co-workers while they're trying to do their job? The nature of question time has become accepted in this place, but you need only speak to new members of parliament or to school groups who see it for the first time to recognise that it's pretty unusual. It's testosterone packed, it's noisy and it doesn't do us much credit in the broader environment. Many people see the behaviour in question time and say to themselves, 'Well, I wouldn't let my kids behave that way.' So reforming question time will help to raise the standard to which politicians are held in the broader community. Relatively few people watch question time in its entirety, but many people who watch the news will see a snippet of question time, and it's not normally a sober, calm, considered snippet; it's often the most overheated moment of the day. If they look at that and see behaviour that they wouldn't tolerate around their dinner table, I don't think that reflects well on us.

Trust in politicians is an issue for both sides, but it's particularly an issue for those of us who believe that government has a powerful role in addressing social problems—those of us who are proud of the creation of Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. For progressives, eroding trust in politicians erodes trust in government. The alternative to trust in government is that old Ronald Reagan approach, where he said: 'Government isn't the solution. Government is the problem.' The more people see that their politicians can't be trusted, the more likely they are to say that government can't be trusted, the more likely they are to turn to laissez-faire minimal-government approaches, and the less likely they are to back us in to create institutions like the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

I also want to commend to the House an initiative from Joanna Richards, who joined my office to produce A Toolkit for Gender Advocacy. Joanna did that as part of her work completing her PhD at the University of Canberra, working with the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation located at the University of Canberra's Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis. She's put together a really useful toolkit aimed principally at those who are advocating on gender-based issues. She tells the story of the 2006 RU486 debate and the way in which lobbyists for that change worked constructively with parliamentarians on all sides. Joanna's toolkit is based on a series of interviews with parliamentarians on all sides of the house and with experienced parliamentary staff. It's a valuable toolkit for anyone lobbying on gender-based issues, but I'll be honest: it's pretty valuable for anyone lobbying MPs on any issue. She has a range of tips and tricks for engaging, how to make the most of short meetings, how to prepare briefing notes and how to engage to get long-term reform. It's available for free download on my website and, for anyone watching who would like a copy, I'm more than happy to send you a copy of that. Working with Joanna, Sharmini and so many other talented women, including my extraordinary staff, has made me a better member of parliament.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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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.