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Parliamentary gender bullying: Why is Australia shy of solutions?

by | Sep 11, 2018 | The Agenda

In March 2018, the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s annual reflection of progress and setbacks of women elected to the world’s national parliaments redirected the #MeToo spotlight – with its focus on the deeply-engrained sexism and sexual misconduct towards women in the entertainment industry – to the political sphere. Parliaments were ‘urged to look inwards to take account of the pervasive sexualised environment that women parliamentarians, staffers and political actors are forced to contend with on a daily basis’.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence – or perhaps the #MeToo movement actually has re-defined the tolerance threshold for inappropriate behaviour in the workplace – but in the past three months, Australia has seen an unprecedented outpour of allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment by members in each major political party.

A key question now is whether the Australian parliament can adequately respond to and deal with allegations and incidences of workplace bullying, harassment and intimidation

These incidences may have different causes and effects, but a key question to be addressed now is whether the Australian parliament can adequately respond to and deal with allegations and incidences of workplace bullying, harassment and intimidation. Can this institution ultimately improve its toxic, gendered workplace culture?

While Australia prides itself on having a long-standing, mostly stable, democracy, a first step in addressing the question might be to look at what has been done globally. A 2011 study found that while ‘sexual harassment policies are the least common form of gender policy implemented in parliament’, some parliaments did have grievance procedures in place to deal with allegations of harassment and bullying. In these cases, committees on ‘conduct’, ‘ethics’ or ‘administrative affairs’ consider the grievance, or the Speaker will hear and adjudicate on the complaint. The study noted that ‘ideally, grievance mechanisms should be completely independent of the political process’.

IPU 2011

Source: IPU, 2011, Gender-sensitive parliaments: A global review of good practice, Geneva

The effectiveness of a code of conduct has been hotly contested in the Australian parliament. Parliamentary committee inquiries in the House of Representatives (in 2011) and the Senate (in 2012) concluded that a code of conduct was not warranted in either chamber. While these debates occurred before the #MeToo frenzy, it is telling that the parliament as a whole took the view that a code of conduct would not, itself, improve members’ behaviour.

The Senate inquiry, however, further concluded that a better approach would be to ‘identify any gaps in conduct or ethical matters, and implement specific measures to address those gaps’. This, surely, leaves a window open for the Senate to consider its own role in mediating grievances of sexual harassment, bullying and misconduct.

The challenge for Australian politics is whether partisan adversarialism should continue to determine the workplace culture of parliament

As we’ve seen from some of the (male) commentary over the past week, politics is Australia can be a rough game, usually fuelled by a competitive, party political, adversarialism. While some of this is healthy – free and robust debate around critical ideas is at the heart of our democracy – the challenge for Australian politics is whether that partisan adversarialism should continue to determine the workplace culture of parliament.

Australia has never had a cross-party gender caucus or gender equality committee. On this, we run against the trend …

In a recent radio interview, Dr Sharman Stone, former Liberal Party MP and now Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, noted that the federal parliament has never had a cross-party gender caucus or gender equality committee. On this, we run against the trend in comparable established democracies including in the United Kingdom and Canada, as well as in developing democracies.

Screen Shot 2018 09 11 at 9.55.55 pmGender caucuses and committees have allowed women parliamentarians – and in some cases, men and women parliamentarians – to work across party lines, either as an internal support mechanism, or to pursue policy and procedural reforms to advance gender equality.

Moreover, in the UK, the Speaker has convened the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to consider the independent Good Parliament report produced by Professor Sarah Childs in 2016, with the aim of taking forward its recommendations to make Parliament ‘truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective in all its functions’. This Reference Group works closely with the Women and Equalities Committee (which itself has investigated sexual harassment in the workplace and in public places), the Workplace Equality Networks and the Women in Parliament All Party Parliamentary Group to:

  • Advise the Speaker on implementation of those recommendations falling within his remit; and
  • Liaise with and make suggestions to the House of Commons Commission and the domestic committees, the Procedure Committee, the House Authorities, and the political parties, regarding implementation of those recommendations falling within their respective remits.

The absence of any such mechanism in Australia may imply that politics is more adversarial here than in any other parliamentary democracy – that Australian party politics cannot accommodate women MPs by putting party interests aside to work together – or it may simply underline a political culture that has yet to formally acknowledge the gendered nature of our democracy.

If, as former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said, there are optimistic trends in Australia’s national conversation about women in political leadership, this debate must include consideration of policy and procedural solutions that would make politics an attractive career choice for women.

Cultural reform requires a political commitment to changing the way politics is done

Parliaments cannot remain as they are if women – especially young women, and women of indigenous, ethnic and LGBTQI communities – are to willingly put their hand up to run. Cultural reform requires more women in parliament and more women in senior leadership positions, but it also requires a political commitment to changing the way politics is done.

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