Parliament House is not the boys’ club it once was, but there’s more to be done to fix the culture

By Amber Schultz

June 6, 2022

Parliament House will be closed to the public.
There are high hopes a new government means a change to parliament’s workplace culture. But how will we know when the toxicity is gone? (max blain/Adobe)

Australia has almost reached gender parity in parliament, with women making up 43% of the majority Labor government. It’s a refreshing change after so many years of Scott Morrison’s lies, broken promises and a government that protects men at all costs.

But a different government doesn’t necessarily mean a different parliament, and simply having more women in the mix doesn’t guarantee a less toxic culture.

This three-part series will explore exactly what needs to change in parliament (and whose responsibility it is to change it), why change will be slow to come, and how parliament should be the leading example of modern, gender-equitable workplaces.

The major changes to look out for

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ review of parliamentary culture, Set the Standard, painted a picture of a toxic, unsafe workplace with limited accountability for abusers. It found that 37% of people had experienced some form of bullying, one in three some form of sexual harassment, and 1% actual or attempted sexual assault.

The review made 28 recommendations, some of which have already been set in motion, including establishing an independent parliamentary standards commission to respond to complaints, best-practice training for MPs and an acknowledgement of abuse and harassment within parliament.

Along with implementing all of Jenkins’ recommendations, Labor has also agreed to implement all 55 recommendations from Jenkins’ broader report into Australian workplaces, ‘Respect@Work’.

Here’s what else to look out for:

  • A positive duty of care within all Australian workplaces to prevent sexual discrimination and harassment, as recommended in the Respect@Work report;
  • A code of conduct for parliamentarians and staff, established by the Joint Standing Committee on Parliamentary Standards;
  • Diversity targets and public reporting of diversity characteristics among parliamentarians and staff;
  • No more late-night votes or extended working times following a review of the order of business;
  • No more slurs, abusive, sexist or discriminatory comments used in parliamentary chambers (that includes Question Time) enforced by presiding officers; and
  • Complaints — both current and historic — to be dealt with by the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service.

A good first step to a diverse parliament

Parliament’s lack of diversity, Jenkins found, meant other groups were marginalised and vulnerable to misconduct, discrimination, bullying and assault. The 47th parliament has record numbers of female, Indigenous and independent politicians, with four new First Nations representatives and three new independents.

While it’s not in newly elected women’s job descriptions to overhaul parliamentary workplaces, lecturer at the Australian National University (ANU) Global Institute for Women’s Leadership Blair Williams tells Crikey it’s a good first step.

“It’s not just the stale pale male group and I think that itself will result in some changes. It erodes that boys’ club — especially that Liberal boys’ club — that we’ve been seeing in politics for quite a while,” she says. 

Despite this parliament’s diversity, she says, more needs to be done: “The Coalition is massively holding [gender parity] back — the level of female representation hasn’t changed and they need to do something.” 

Parliament is expected to introduce diversity targets and release public reporting on its characteristics — which will highlight where it’s falling behind and whether representation extends to staffers.

As gender policy fellow at ANU, Sonia Palmieri tells Crikey the new, more diverse parliament is “a first but really just initial step to cultural change”.

A respectful workplace with regular hours

While still a majority government, with fewer politicians representing the two major parties there are hopes the protection racket seen during the Coalition’s nine-year reign will be disrupted.

Palmieri believes fewer career politicians, and more independents coming from a wide range of working backgrounds, means poor behaviour previously ignored as “the norm” won’t be tolerated.

“They are coming in from workplaces that don’t expect to see bullying and harassment as kind of the norm, which is what we have seen for the past two decades,” she says.

“They’re coming in from workplaces where accountability is now built-in, so they are the ones who are going to be holding the parliament to account [and] entrench new standards, rules and expectations.”

Much of Parliament House’s cultural problems stem from staffers feeling isolated after flying into Canberra, working long hours in a “work-hard, play-hard” culture fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption, and the unpredictability of working hours.

The Joint Standing Committee on Parliamentary Standards is set to review working hours, alcohol policies and the code of conduct — but how well enforced these will be remains to be seen.

“What we’d really like to see is a different workplace for members as well, and that really does come down to the hours, which then sets the tone for things like drinking and workplace dinners and functions,” Palmieri says.

“It’s about parliament accepting that it doesn’t need to work as this unique workplace because everyone has to fly in and maximise the time that they’re there. We now have lots of different ways of working as we’ve understood for the past two years.”

A lead-by-example approach

The election showed Australians were fed up with politicians’ combative approach and were looking for a softer style of leadership.

Executive chair of the McKell Institute in Queensland Rachel Nolan — who is a former Queensland Labor MP — believes Albanese’s leadership style will have a huge impact on the way other MPs behave — more so, she says, than changing working hours.

“Just because you’re working long hours doesn’t mean there has to be that culture associated with that,” she says.

Adding a “critical mass” of women, coupled with Albanese’s leadership style, will make parliament “a more inclusive and more considered place”.

“The leader absolutely sets the tone … it’s likely the nature of parliamentary debate will all change,” she says.

This article is republished from our sister publication Crikey.


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