Wednesday marks a year since Sex Commissioner Kate Jenkins’s Set the Standard report was published. The report described people’s experiences of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces.
The Jenkins Review was initiated after women bravely came forward to share their experiences. This vanguard was followed by others who told their stories to the review team confidentially.
I was one of them.As the #MeToo reckoning for Australian politics played out in the media, traumatic incidents from two decades earlier that I had tried hard not to think about resurfaced.
I realised the things that happened to me as a young intern in a federal politician’s office, involving the politician’s chief of staff, were not just bad experiences. They were incidents of rape, unwanted sexual touching, and sexual harassment. They were abuses of power.
To say that 2021 and 2022 have been extremely difficult for me would be an understatement. Trying to process those experiences and decide what to do about them has made the last year one of the hardest of my life. My mental and physical health, my career, and my family have all been negatively affected.
Meanwhile, the life of the man involved has not been affected at all.
While I have thought about those incidents every day since they resurfaced, he probably has not thought about them for many years. I understand that the options available to me to try to hold him accountable for his behaviour, or to receive any kind of compensation, range from difficult to impossible.
When I talk to people about my experiences, they often ask me what I want now. I want what any person who has been harmed by an individual, a group, or an institution wants.
People want to be listened to when they share their traumatic experiences. They want those experiences acknowledged. They want those responsible to apologise. They want individuals to be held accountable for their behaviour. They want reasonable compensation. They want steps to be taken to help ensure that the things that happened to them do not happen to others. Above all, they want to be treated as people.
Assault, harassment, and bullying are all dehumanising experiences.
One of the worst aspects of the assaults I experienced was the realisation that the perpetrator did not care who I was, what I wanted or did not want, or what my goals and ambitions were. He saw me only as a body he could use.
When people report their dehumanising experiences, they are often met with a dehumanising response from the police, management, the HR department, or others. As a result, their original trauma is compounded.
I believe the review process, the resulting Set the Standard report, and the Parliament’s response to the report have aimed to respond in a humanising way, and have generally succeeded in doing so. The review team listened to and acknowledged people’s experiences and produced a comprehensive and powerful report, with recommendations focused on ensuring parliamentary workplaces are safer for everyone in future.
In February 2022 the Parliament implemented the report’s first recommendation by apologising for the past mistreatment of people in parliamentary workplaces. For me, hearing those speeches was a cathartic moment. There were tears involved, so I was glad I watched in private. And it’s not every day that you get an apology from a prime minister.
All political parties have agreed to implement the report’s 28 recommendations in full, and that work continues to progress. In my view there are two key things that were not included in the recommendations that the Parliament also needs to implement: consultation and compensation.
The Jenkins Review centred on the voices of people from parliamentary workplaces and did not prioritise some voices over others. But the implementation process has been driven by the parliamentary leadership taskforce whose members are all politicians.
No employees or former employees are represented on the taskforce, unlike in NSW where the equivalent advisory group includes representatives of current and former staff. This needs to change.
The Australian Parliament should also establish a standing staff consultation body, one that includes representatives of workers in all parliamentary workplaces as well as former staff and survivor advocates.
Some of the people who have been bullied, harassed, or assaulted in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces have been able to access financial compensation.
Others may be eligible for compensation, but have been so traumatised by their experiences that they are not in any position to jump through all the required bureaucratic and legal hoops. And some fall into a kind of legal black hole, with few if any options for compensation available.
The Australian Parliament is now aiming to set the standard for other workplaces in responding to misconduct.
It could demonstrate that commitment by putting its money where its mouth is and setting up a redress scheme for people who have been traumatised by their experiences in parliamentary workplaces.
- This article was first published in The Canberra Times. It is republished here with full permission from the author and the publication.