Making public service an environment that accepts women’s power

By Emma Davidson

Monday March 8, 2021

The government turns its back on Tanya Plibersek during a session. Showing contempt for Australian politics
Australian politics in action. Question Time, October 20, 2020. (Image: Twitter:alexellinghausen)

At its heart, parliamentary government is the exercise of power. Legislative power to make laws; executive power to carry out and enforce the laws; and judicial power to interpret laws. The sad reality is that in our parliaments, power is also used to bully, abuse, and silence women.

Coupled with the underrepresentation of women in our Legislative, Executive and Judicial arms of government, as well as in senior positions supporting those institutions, we see a gendered power imbalance reflected in a workplace culture that enables abuse.

I would know. I’ve worked as a former Convenor of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, in the commonwealth public service at Centrelink, in the Navy, as well as in the community sector. Now I’m a Member of the Legislative Assembly and a minister in the ACT government. I’ve learned a thing or two about how workplaces impact our mental wellbeing. I’ve experienced some of the challenges faced by women in politics and the public sector that limit their ability to progress their careers and change the dominant culture.

Power imbalances tilted in favour of men over women are everywhere. They reside in the competitive language used by our leaders — using sports metaphors, where everything is about winning or point-scoring. And in the expectation that women won’t speak up. They reside in the actions of leaders who force legislative changes through Parliament using their numbers, instead of reaching a consensus through discussion or negotiating a compromise to reduce the negative impacts for those most at risk.

“I was told by a (male) federal politician that I was to blame for his actions”

Recently, as an ACT government minister I was told by a (male) federal politician that I was to blame for his actions and he actually said “I didn’t want to do this, but you are making me do it.” This was because I wouldn’t quietly agree to something that would violate human rights. It was chilling.

Sexual assault is another abuse of power. It’s not about what she wore, how much she drank, or whether she was out after dark. It’s about a person with power making sure another person knows that they don’t have control — in this case, over their own body.

Recent allegations about abuse by people in positions of authority in federal parliament have tested the resilience of political workplaces — my own, our offices and our party’s. It’s why the ACT Greens MLAs have written a joint letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for an independent inquiry into the allegations made against Attorney-General Christian Porter. You can read that letter here.

Abusive behaviour would be less prevalent if consensus and collaboration were the foundation of our political systems. Distributing power reduces the abuse of power. But we have a federal parliamentary system centred on a two-party system and the majority winner-takes-all vote.

Where power and control are central, there is greater risk of the privileged abusing their positions. We need to find ways to create safe political workplaces.

Understanding and awareness is the start point. Many workplaces offer training in sexual consent, being an active bystander, domestic and family violence, accidental counsellor, and mental health first aid. This training can provide a better understanding of the ways in which power imbalances can lead to abuse and what to do if someone needs help.

It is possible to create a workplace culture where there are fewer opportunities to abuse power. It can be as simple as socialising with work colleagues in ways that are inclusive for all — including those who do not drink. It also means reasonable working hours. Working past midnight is not acceptable in most office jobs, and it shouldn’t be normalised in our parliaments.

There will, of course, be times where people work extra hours or there is pressure to perform to a higher standard. The lead-up to a Budget or a key piece of legislation being debated are just some examples that place additional stress on staffers. Beyond having an employee assistance program, offices can talk about wellbeing and plan for recovery between busy periods. Trained wellbeing officers, unions and networks for people with shared identity are ways to support one another in the workplace. These are just small things we can do to support employee wellbeing and promote healthy relationships.

Changing the demographics of people with power can also change workplace culture. Hire, develop, and promote for diversity: women, culturally diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people of diverse genders and sexualities, people with disabilities, from different socio-economic backgrounds, young people and older people. Different life experiences and perspectives mean a greater diversity of leadership and decision-making styles, and ways of using power and privilege constructively for the greater good.

“…the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

To borrow from a leader in one of my former workplaces, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. We must address poor behaviour quickly, so that issues are resolved while they are small and a culture of enabling abuse cannot develop.

Mistakes will be made, but in a workplace where we all have shared values, they are usually not malicious. These are the everyday problems of a missed phone call or a task that falls behind schedule — mistakes which are learning opportunities.

We must choose leaders who have well developed empathy and humility. This is something our whole community can participate in — by voting for political representatives who demonstrate those attributes.

The majority of elected representatives in the ACT Legislative Assembly have been women over the past four years, and women are the majority in our current cabinet. The assembly aims to keep sitting days to reasonable hours and to avoid sitting during school holidays.

This is good not only for people with caring responsibilities, but also for people who would find extremely long days to be physically and mentally draining. It means we have men in the assembly who can take a more active role in their family life than might otherwise be possible. It means our assembly has a greater diversity of leadership styles.

We must strive to continually improve workplace cultures, in parliament and everywhere. The work already done in the ACT, in our legislative and executive arms of government is a demonstration that change is possible and beneficial, for women, their careers and our society.


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