Former foreign minister Julie Bishop has called for structural changes to occur at Parliament House to change the culture that prevents staff from speaking up against inappropriate behaviour, and to put a stop to sexual harassment and assault.
Bishop on Monday told the ABC’s 7.30 that there is a “powerful culture” within all political parties at Parliament House that prevents people from doing or saying anything that might damage a party’s reputation.
“And so that puts enormous pressure on staff, on members of Parliament, in fact, on everyone, to toe the line, don’t rock the boat, don’t do anything that would damage the party’s prospects,” she said.
Bishop said this has led to an environment where those who have behaved inappropriately or illegally feel protected.
“They know that people aren’t going to complain because that would damage the party, it would damage the party’s prospects, and this is across Parliament,” she said.
“It makes it a very unusual workplace in that regard but also, we don’t have the structures in place to counter that. For example, staff are employed by the taxpayer and answer to the Department of Finance. The Department of Finance answers to the minister for finance and the finance minister is a political figure.”
Bishop, who is currently chancellor of the Australian National University, argued that an independent complaints system as well as induction programs and formalised training programs were needed in Parliament.
To specifically address the culture of sexual harassment and discrimination in Parliament House, which “has developed over many years”, she said structural changes that create a “model workplace” were necessary, as well as “education at every level”.
“If the events of the last few weeks haven’t led political parties to embrace change, I don’t know what has to happen,” Bishop said.
“I’m aware that schoolchildren, schoolgirls and schoolboys, are talking about this issue and that the schools are taking positive steps to have conversations with young people about issues of consent and healthy sexual relations and respect … Parliament House must also have this conversation.”
On February 15 the story of former ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleges that she was raped by a male colleague in Parliament House in 2019, was first reported by the media.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has maintained that he knew nothing of Higgins’ allegations until the reports emerged last month, but text messages have suggested that someone in his office was told of the alleged incident not long after it occurred.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens is currently investigating who in the PM’s office knew of the allegations, and when they found out.
Bishop told 7.30 that she was “surprised” that no one told Morrison of the alleged incident, but said Gaetjens’ inquiry would shed light on “why it was that this information was withheld from the prime minister”.
She said that if someone had come to her with a rape allegation “in a workplace for which I’m responsible”, she would have “felt a duty” to inform the police.
Last week attorney-general Christian Porter identified himself as the minister at the centre of historical rape allegations, which he has rejected.
The woman who made the allegations took her own life last year, but had not made a formal statement to police. New South Wales police have confirmed it cannot investigate the matter further due to “insufficient admissible evidence”.
Bishop said that while “there are no answers” due to the circumstances, she would support an inquest into the woman’s death by the South Australian coroner.
“To me that is the next logical step. It’s within the criminal justice system. There are checks and balances and there are statutory powers. It has legal standing and so, that is the next step and I understand from media reporting that that’s what the family would welcome,” she said.
Bishop said she first heard of the allegations against her former colleague roughly six months ago “from an informal source”, noting that she would have reported the allegations to the prime minister and the police had she learned of them while she was still in government.
She questioned why Morrison and Porter had not read the letter outlining the allegations, which were sent to Morrison’s office almost two weeks ago.
“I think in order to deny allegations you would need to know the substance of the allegations or at least the detail of the allegations,” she said.