Our Parliament is central to how we understand power in our society and our democracy.
Parliament should set the standard of how we want our society to look and it should model best practice behaviour for the rest of society. What happens in Parliament has a direct bearing on how our society functions. Indeed, it is the ecosystems of Parliament that reflect the ecosystems of Australian society and the quality of Australian democracy.
Therefore, it has been particularly alarming when in recent years the awful conduct towards women and others within Parliament House has been laid bare for all to see.
When reports of inappropriate behaviour were revealed about Parliament house in 2020 - following Louise Milligan’s ABC Four Corners report “Inside the Canberra Bubble” - I called for the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to conduct a review into Parliament as a safe and equal workplace.
Following the Brittany Higgins allegations of rape inside Parliament House and the March4Justice rally that followed, the Prime Minister heeded this call and commissioned Kate Jenkins to do a review of Parliamentary workplace culture.
When the review was published in November of 2021, the results were shocking.
The report found that 40% of women had personally experienced sexual harassment in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces. The report revealed how the Parliament as a workplace is filled with gross power imbalances, gender inequality, a lack of accountability, entitlement and exclusion.
In response to this alarming culture, the Set the Standard report detailed 28 recommendations to ensure Parliament becomes a safe and equal workplace.
It is essential that we implement all 28 recommendations, however I want to highlight some key recommendations.
The first set of recommendations speaks to the need to improve diversity, equality and inclusion (recommendations 5-10).
The report details the need to have a fully representative Parliament and, given that women make up 51% of the population, it is essential to have more women in Parliament.
Recommendations 5-10 outlines a 10-year-strategy with targets to achieve gender balance in Parliament, with frameworks to ensure more women in Parliament with a focus on leadership roles as well as creating an inclusive workplace.
“Through the implementation of the recommended interventions below, CPWs will shift to a future state where the Parliament attracts and retains people who reflect the full diversity of the community and everyone contributes to robust and inclusive decision making and a vibrant democracy.”
It is clear we need more women in Parliament as a crucial step to improve the workplace culture of Parliament House - and therefore improve gender equality in society.
Key ways to ensure women in leadership roles within Parliament would be to have equal numbers of women in Cabinet, as well as appointing a full-time Minister for Women.
The second set of recommendations to highlight relate to safety and wellbeing in Parliament.
The report recognises the importance of shifting the cultural norms and behaviours currently visible in Parliament House that foster exclusivity and unsafe spaces.
“Throughout the Review, the Commission heard about the high pressure and ‘win at all costs’ work environment in CPWs and its significant impact on people’s safety and wellbeing. Participants also identified a range of factors that create both physical and psychosocial risks, such as a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture, with high levels of stress, long and irregular hours, extensive travel and regular alcohol use.
Through the implementation of these recommendations, CPWs will shift to a future state where a proactive and preventative approach is taken to wellbeing and safety that puts people at the centre.”
The “win at all costs” mentally is at the heart of the bitter partisan politics that exists within our Parliament and has been a roadblock to progress on so many policy issues. But it also speaks to the nature of our society that we must address broadly (as per my other policies in this space).
Recommendations 25-28 present the need to improve safety and wellbeing through various structural reforms.
Recommendation 27 particularly calls for a review of the Parliamentary sitting calendar and Order/Routine of Business with “a view to enhancing wellbeing, balance and flexibility for parliamentarians and workers in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces.”
This is a strong example of showing how we need structural solutions in order to create a more egalitarian society, similar to the reforms proposed in paid parental leave and childcare that break the mould of normative understandings of how our society should operate.
As I wrote in the Canberra Times December 2021, “the focus is on Parliament to look deeply at itself, and for the major parties to accept that the people elected to it are key to ensuring we are able to make real and meaningful change.”
Parliament has to become a model workplace - both in its membership and its behaviour.
Without equality and safety in our Parliament, we cannot expect to achieve those goals in broader Australian society.