Australians may have become inured to reports of funding rorts and other misdeeds emanating from Canberra over recent years, but the revelations of sexual misconduct and misogyny in Parliament House that emerged in the first months of 2021 have genuinely shocked us. They paint our parliament as an unreconstructed ‘boys club’: a culture that is both unsafe for women and unfit to produce the standard of leadership expected of our elected representatives.
Federal parliament is the pinnacle of representative democracy. It is the seat of the power with which we endow our elected members and senators to make laws on our behalf, to protect and to serve us as a people. It should be a place of the highest standards of probity and ethics: one that sets an example for the nation, and in which working for the Australian people is a position of privilege and pride.
In the face of such malign revelations of the reality of working in politics, how are we to salvage the idea that a life of public service through government is one worth aspiring to? What do we say to young people who may be dissuaded from pursuing a career in politics because of the events of the past few months?
I spent five years working in federal parliament as a policy adviser, and it was both the most demanding and rewarding job I’ve had. I was fortunate to work for a minister with exemplary gender politics: his office was gender equal, both in terms of the number of staff and their relative seniority. No opportunity was denied to me on the basis of my sex, and I was treated with respect by all my colleagues.
How are we to salvage the idea that a life of public service through government is one worth aspiring to?
Still, gender inequities – even in a government headed by Australia’s first female prime minister – were everywhere. Among the 16 or so people I worked with over those five years (staff turnover is high in such demanding jobs), six of the eight men had children at home of pre- or primary-school age, while none of the eight women had children at all. My own daughter was born 10 months to the day after I left the role, which I did specifically because I could not meet its demands and be a mother at the same time.
This is largely a result of the long hours and extensive interstate travel required of the job. Women in their 30s and beyond, as I was during my time as a staffer, are under-represented amongst the ranks of advisers. It is, quite simply, a job that requires a wife – someone who can stay at home and raise the children, effectively as a single parent for large chunks of the year. This means that the ranks of staffers are dominated by young childless people, of any gender, and older men, who are away from their families for extended periods.
The resulting culture is something akin to a school camp, or university hall of residence, leading to a mindset for many akin to the old boys’ motto: “What happens on tour stays on tour”.
Not anymore: media reports over recent months have forced this behaviour into the open, and provided shelter and support for women to speak out against the anachronistic and insular ‘blokey’ culture of our national parliament. This is a seismic shift.
It is only by insisting that women be equally present in our highest decision- and policy-making roles that we will ensure our elected parliamentarians are representative of the Australian people.
That these stories were broken by senior female journalists in the Canberra Press Gallery is not incidental. Veteran political reporters such as Samantha Maiden, Katharine Murphy and Laura Tingle have doggedly, and with barely restrained fury, pursued reports of sexual misconduct and sexist work practices in parliament. Their male colleagues have been slow to realise that such reporting isn’t a distraction from the coverage of politics; it is at the very core of it.
The gender shift in the senior ranks of the press gallery over the past decade or so mirrors that within the make-up of parliament, where the Opposition and crossbench are now roughly gender equal. While the Coalition parties have resisted the affirmative action policies that have led to this change – such as gender quotas in the ALP and gender equality targets within media companies – the Prime Minister and several of his senior colleagues now indicate a willingness to consider some form of action on equality.
This can’t come too soon. It is only by insisting that women be equally present in our highest decision- and policy-making roles, and by actively changing the cultural and workplace practices that exclude and marginalise them, that we will ensure our elected parliamentarians are representative of the Australian people, and that the culture of Parliament House meets the expectations we have for our leaders, now and in the future.