Faces of change: Why simply diversifying parliament won’t shift its toxic culture

By Amber Schultz

June 7, 2022

Sophie Scamps, Kylie Tink, Zoe Daniels
Sophie Scamps, Kylie Tink, Zoe Daniels. (Private Media)

This is part two of a three-part series looking at what needs to be done to make Parliament House a safe place for all. 

A record number of independents and women have been elected to parliament, coming from medical, corporate and legal backgrounds. With no party to mentor them, they face an uphill battle in learning the ins and outs of parliament and politics — with an added pressure that their presence will contribute to a new, improved parliament with a safer and more respectful culture.

But change will be slow, and expecting an entirely new workplace culture based solely on a diversified workforce is problematic. Here are some of the issues with change, and how three independents say they’ll address it.

Steep learning curve

There’s no handbook on how parliament works, and for independents, there’s no one from their party to show them the ropes. MPs arrive, are given a parliamentary email address and keys to an office, and take it from there.

“There’ll be no handover with the previous local member … so any casework will have to go back to the beginning when I start,” member for Goldstein Zoe Daniel tells Crikey.

“I’ll be told: ‘Off you go and be an MP.’ ” Thankfully, she says, many independents are working together and sharing information, tips and knowledge. 

“There’s a lot to learn and that learning curve needs to be really steep because we’re in three-year parliamentary terms, which is not a lot of time.”

There’s also no code of conduct for MPs to guide their behaviour. While a code will be developed by the new Joint Standing Committee on Parliamentary Standards as recommended by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, it’s yet to be developed. This surprised North Sydney MP Kylea Tink.

“I think that speaks volumes to what’s missing in this culture — that standard set of values, a very clear vision on what this organisation is meant to be about, and then a standard code of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” she tells Crikey.

New expectations

With different career backgrounds come different expectations for how a workplace should function — and as Jenkins’ review outlined, parliament is an anomaly when it comes to irregular hours, alcohol consumption and acceptability for harassment.

One thing Australians can expect to see less of is abusive comments yelled across the chambers in the name of a “lively debate”. (The very same day Jenkins handed in her damning review into parliament workplace culture, an unknown Labor MP yelled out for then health minister Greg Hunt and MP Gladys Lui to “get a room”.)

While accepted among MPs, those coming from different workforces have different expectations and can look at scenarios with fresh eyes. Tink says if she heard inappropriate language called out during question time, which often isn’t picked up on microphones and not heard by those at home, she would call it out.

“I would then personally bring it to the speaker’s attention and to the attention of either the leader of the opposition or the prime minister.”

Member for Mackellar Dr Sophie Scamps tells Crikey the new MPs haven’t grown accustomed to the unacceptable behaviour other MPs had.

“It will be startling for us … to show that things are not normal,” she says the lack of alcohol policies was shocking. Scamps is a GP in an industry where going on a boozy lunch before going back to work would get you barred.

“Independents are not controlled by a party, so you’re very free to call anything out that you need to call out … and that’s a very powerful thing.”

Old habits die hard

Expecting women to change workplace culture solely on the basis of being women is damaging, Griffith University principal research fellow at the Policy Innovation Hub Jennifer Menzies tells Crikey.

“There’s an expectation that when women get to a certain level of power or numbers within the parliament, they’re going to bring a more consultative and consensus-seeking model to the parliament,” she says.

“What worries me is that’s a continuation of gender stereotypes. There’s a lot of different women in the parliament that will approach the way they go about their parliamentary business in different models.”

Australia’s Westminster-style parliament makes change tough too. With the two major parties sitting opposite one another and the media looking down from the press gallery hunting for explosive grabs, expectations for change needed to be checked, she says.

“I don’t think it’s going to be easy,” Tink says. “The reality is that culture is perhaps one of the hardest things to change in any organisation … so I am very mindful that just adding more women to the environment is not necessarily going to shift the dial.”

This article is republished from our sister publication Crikey.


READ MORE:

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

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