A damning independent report into parliamentary workplace culture has painted a toxic picture of sexual harassment and bullying, with one interviewee describing “aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of … picking you up (and) kissing you on the lips”.
A “culture of misconduct being normalised and of people being unwilling to intervene or speak out” existed across parliament, the report found, with one in three parliament staffers claiming to have faced sexual harassment.
Another participant described parliament as “a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day thanks to the looks up and down you get”.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who led the review, made 28 recommendations, including an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission to lead a code of conduct for Federal MPs and staff.
Speaking after the report’s release, Ms Jenkins said only 11 per cent of people who experienced sexual harassment in parliamentary workplaces had reported it, and that victims were often punished for coming forward to complain about their harassment.
She said she hoped the report’s findings “inspire immediate action”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he found the details in the report “appalling and disturbing”.
“I wish I found them more surprising,” Mr Morrison said.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham described the report as a “landmark document” outlining decades of problems and misconduct.
“Many of the stories that are told are distressing and reflect completely unacceptable behaviours,” he said.
There are 28 recommendations in the report to set a better standard.
“The lack of clear standards leads to confusion about expected behaviour and also contributes to the normalisation of misconduct,” the report said.
“Rather than being held accountable, participants told the Commission that people who engaged in misconduct were often rewarded for, or in spite of, their behaviour.
“The Commission heard about the particular difficulty of sanctioning parliamentarians who engaged in misconduct, because they do not have an ’employer’.
“As one participant put it ‘[t]here are no ramifications for bad behaviour because there is no risk of MPs getting fired, or otherwise being held accountable for their actions.'”
‘He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat’
Some of the comments from victims included in the report, arising from more than 1700 interviews across 33 organisations, will cause disgust and alarm.
One account detailed harassment and abuse which drove one woman driven into a suicide attempt, with other reports of the breakdown of a marriage and ongoing psychological damage.
Participants in the report also raised concerns about the limited recourse available for people who experience bullying, sexual harassment and or sexual assault.
Some of the testimonies include:
- Aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of, in one case, 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.
- It is a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day thanks to the looks up and down you get, to the representation in the parliamentary chambers, to the preferential treatment politicians give senior male journalists.
- [T]he MP sitting beside me leaned over. Also thinking he wanted to tell me something, I leaned in. He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating.
- When the work is that fast paced, and the needs of the Minister are so unrelenting, you lose perspective on what is appropriate, what your rights are and the way in which you deserve to be treated.
- Multiple participants spoke about the lack of women in senior roles, explaining that ‘by crowding out women at the most senior levels … a male-dominated and testosterone-fuelled culture dominates’. Participants also drew attention to gender segregation in the workplace, including ‘being given tasks on a gendered basis’.
- One tried to commit suicide, another admitted themselves into a mental facility. I know three women [who worked in CPWs] that are still seeing psychologists. One had a marriage breakdown, and one has completely dislocated with her children as a result of the direct influence of that Member of Parliament … I will never work in a political office again, it’s not worth it.
Commissioner praises Brittany Higgins for coming forward
Ms Jenkins paid tribute to Ms Higgins for catalysing the investigation into workplace harassment in Federal Parliament.
“Her contribution and the impact of that is immeasurable,” she said.
Ms Jenkins thanked “the many brave people who shared their stories” which contributed to the review and hoped “all sides of politics not only commit to but implement these recommendations in full”.
There was an urgent need to change Parliament by bringing in more diversity, she said, while acknowledging the abuse female MPs endured, whether in-person sexual harassment or online trolling, was “really shocking”.
“Certainly, it’s really clear that our female parliamentarians have a much tougher time in this workplace,” she said.
There are a “bucket load” of risk factors that make Parliament a “unique” place for workplace harassment compared to many corporate offices, she said.
Unclear or inconsistent standards made it difficult, Ms Jenkins said, while the fact bosses in Parliament are elected members rather than appointed managers complicates dealing with harassment.
The workplace dynamics of fear, loyalty and politics make things worse, she said.
The social conditions of fly-in, fly-out work, irregular hours, high pressure and high scrutiny are also risk factors.