Hunger games: is it any wonder that most of the Independents and MPs from small parties are women?

Feb 26, 2021

The major parties are largely managed by men who manipulate the choice of candidates to favour men like themselves. I doubt there has been a woman working in Parliament who has not experienced sexual harassment at some time in her career. It is time men in leadership roles faced up to their individual responsibility to eradicate this toxic culture.

What would happen if a young man had been found by Parliament House security staff after an unknown physical attack? We can assume that the ambulance and police would have been called immediately.

The injured male would have been taken to hospital and his condition fully assessed and treated. Such a serious assault would have been publicly reported, together with an urgent official investigation into the breach of security by an unknown assailant, who potentially could be a threat to others.

Yet two years after allegedly comparable circumstances a young woman, Brittany Higgins,  finds she must speak publicly about her ordeal because she was not given essential support. She was left alone for several hours with no assistance or medical care. No female security staff or police were called to provide the fundamental advice normally given to alleged victims of sexual assault.

How do we start to explain this blatant double standard of response, one that would have passed unnoticed had Ms Higgins not spoken out and demanded that the Parliament and the Government hear her complaint?

Parliament House in Canberra is the centre of power in Australian politics. It remains the last bastion of male dominance and privilege because women’s role in politics has long been marginalised by cultural expectations that mainly white men will dominate in national leadership and decision making.

Many women, and  supportive men, have worked assiduously over the past 120 years to change the dynamics of how the parliament functions so that women can participate on an equal basis in the nation’s democratic institution.

But it is a very slow process for half the population to be recognised as equal partners in decision making for our nation.

In 1901, the all-male national parliament voted for women to have the right to vote and stand for parliament, but it was another 39 years before the first women Dame Enid Lyons (Tasmania) and Dorothy Tangney (WA) took their places in the House of Representatives. There was a 26-year gap before Dame Annabel Rankin became Australia’s first woman minister and more than 50 years before Julia Gillard became Australia’s Prime Minister.

As one of several women elected to federal parliament in 1983 I am familiar with those  entrenched attitudes and practices that have challenged women politicians and their female staff over the past four decades.

In my early years at Old Parliament House, women were regarded as uninvited guests who did not belong in a building with its over-large armchairs and male-only toilets. When a group of newly elected women held a celebratory dinner in the Parliamentary dining room, the comments from many male colleagues set the tone for what we could expect in Parliament. Some were simply immature reactions, while others were openly hostile and sexist, but we sensed the resentment to our presence.

During the 1980s and 1990s my women colleagues and I probably spent more time on developing public policy of gender reform to benefit Australian women than considering the environment in which we worked. By 1988 we had moved to the vast and impersonal New Parliament House, so we lost some of the social support created by working in close proximity to each other. The “broom cupboard” offices were replaced by three-room suites of office space, kitchen and bathroom so it was easy to become isolated.

That change seemed to contribute to the Wednesday night party culture in nearby Manuka and Kingston when parliamentarians, staff and journalists congregated in bars and restaurants, with men considerably outnumbering women and the consumption of alcohol and drugs leading to  irresponsible behaviour.

There was a silent pact that gossip about these wild nights remained unspoken when we returned to the house on the hill next day. There were assaults, affairs and broken relationships, but little was said or done to question this aspect of parliamentary culture.

A few of us older women looked out for young staff, but in doing so were dismissed as  “spoilers” or out of step with people relaxing and having “just a bit of fun”. I doubt there has been a woman working in the Parliament who has not experienced sexual harassment at some time in her career. Such intimidation was possible because of the imbalance of male and female representation in the parliament. It was not unusual for  women parliamentarians, female staff, journalists  and other women working in Parliament House to discover that their careers could be affected or terminated by how they responded to men in power.

However, as more women were elected, certain stereotypes faded and many men worked  effectively with women as they assumed a greater role in debate and decision making. Parliamentary debates changed as we spoke about childcare, abortion rights, maternity leave, women’s health and even quotas for preselection of women candidates. Sex Discrimination and Affirmative Action legislation had been passed and the Woman’s Budget process was changing priorities for decision making across all government departments.

But were we changing the masculine culture in a workplace still controlled by men, many of whom swaggered through the corridors making decisions regardless of alternative opinions? That testosterone-fuelled confidence often led to bullying behaviour within the parliament and beyond, with name calling and abuse of women who dared to question male entitlement. Often the worst offenders were insignificant individuals, but their ambition led to arrogant assumptions about their capacity to influence ministers and the direction of public policy.

Fast forward 20 years and what has changed? Parliament remains controlled by men and this government is headed by men. The major parties are largely managed by men who  manipulate the choice of candidates to favour men like themselves. Indeed, in the Australian Labor Party women have long argued that too many men are chosen because they are mates, while women have to be chosen on merit. The Liberal and National parties are more tribal in their preselection methods, which creates barriers for women. Leadership teams of the major parties are controlled by the back room men in factions and groups that want to preserve the status quo. Choices are determined behind closed doors and bear no relationship to normal job selection criteria.

This antiquated system of preferment offers “the people “ little say in the nation’s  leadership. However, committed and competent men and women MPs do emerge from these old party structures. Indeed, the success of the quota to guarantee women’s preselection has assembled talented teams of Labor women who continue trying to change existing rigid political structures.

Already the attraction of independents and small parties are winning over voters because there is increasing concern that the current system is neither fair nor effective in setting high standards of diverse leadership for the nation. Is it mere coincidence that most of the elected Independents and small party representatives are women? Despite the best efforts of  many MPs over recent years, women’s influence on national politics remains marginal.

This unacceptable reality has been placed on the political agenda by a young woman whose shocking experience highlights the way old attitudes affect the way women and men are treated differently in our Parliament.

It is time men in parliamentary and government leadership roles faced up to their individual responsibility to eradicate this toxic culture. Firstly of course there must be justice for Ms Higgins and a guarantee that her experience could never be repeated. Secondly the major parties must reform their arrogant preselection rituals, which deny the voters a diverse choice of talented and ethical candidates who will commit to changing parliamentary culture.

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