Global Affairs

Australia’s Political #MeToo Moment Exposes Ingrained Sexist Parliamentary Culture

CW: Mentions of rape and sexual assault

The recent pile-up of sexual assault and harassment allegations within the Australian Parliament is symptomatic of a deep-rooted sexist culture governing Australian politics. Australia is experiencing a political #MeToo moment which has left Prime Minister Scott Morrison grasping at straws in an attempt to rescue his decreasing approval rating.

The onslaught of allegations was triggered by a ministerial staffer, Brittany Higgins’, allegation that she was raped by a senior colleague in Parliament House in March 2019. Following her report, three other women came forward alleging assault by the same staffer who has since been sacked. Despite reporting the incident to senior staff and to police at the time, Ms Higgins felt pressured by the Liberal Party to choose between her job and justice, opting to withdraw the charges and remain employed. Linda Reynolds, Defence Minister, went so far as to call Ms Higgins a “lying cow”. She has since been forced to apologise.

Further allegations have emerged since, including against Christian Porter, the Attorney General accused of rape in 1988. Whilst he denies the allegation, Mr Morrison has demoted him to a less senior cabinet role.

To top all this off, videos and photos of parliamentary aides masturbating onto a female MP’s desk have also been released to the press by a former staffer who claimed he felt compelled to release them after receiving innumerable messages with similar content.

As such, the Australian Parliament appears to be a cesspit of sexual misconduct. Whilst  Mr Morrison said he was ‘shocked’ and has made many attempts to improve the situation, he had constantly missed the mark. Mr Morrison’s principal structural response to sexism in Australian politics has been a cabinet reshuffle, placing more women in positions of power and declaring that Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs, will now be known by her colleagues as the “Prime Minister for women”.

The PM has reassumed the role of “Scotty from Marketing”, as nicknamed by the Australian newspaper The Betoota Advocate. His statements and superficial changes are a desperate attempt to paper over the cracks of this political crisis without addressing the institutional problems that allow the continuation of sexism within Parliament. By nominating a female colleague “Prime Minister for Women” he is abdicating responsibility for women’s issues and refusing to lead from the front, preferring to offload responsibility and wash his own hands clean of any guilt. As Australian of the Year Grace Tame described, the changes are “calculated distractions posing as solutions”. Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek criticised the PM for failing to fully comprehend the issue, saying “What a nonsense proposition that we have a government that is half for men and half for women.”

Whilst out of the Liberal Party’s 106 seats in federal parliament, only 19 are held by women, Mr Morrison continues to claim his government doesn’t have a “women problem” due to the appointment of a record 7th female cabinet minister. It is important to recognise that Mr Morrison’s cabinet has the highest number of female members in history, but whilst this is doubtless a step forward, it should not be used as a reason to ignore more endemic sexism within his 80% male party and Australian politics more broadly.

All of Mr Morrison’s moves to promote women are based on doing as little as possible while appearing to do a lot. This façade speaks to a continual trend in Australian politics over the past 20 years that has seen gender diversity consistently slip. Australia’s parliament has moved from 15th in the world for gender diversity in 2006, to 50th today. Despite receiving recommendations from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner over a year ago, until very recently, the government has failed to implement structural changes to protect women and prevent sexual harassment. Ms Plibersek has accused the Morrison government of ‘negligence’, arguing that the PM is only now addressing sexism “because the government’s got a political problem that it needs to fix”. 

Only last week did Mr Morrison confirm that Australia’s Sex Discrimination law will be broadened, according to the recommendations in the March 2020 ‘Respect@Work’ report into sexual discrimination by Kate Jenkins, to include MPs, judges and public servants who are currently exempt under sexual harassment laws. Further, the definition of sexual harassment and assault will be included within ‘serious misconduct’ provisions in workplace laws. As such, sexual harassment will legally become a saccable offense. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke positively of the government’s desire to accept the recommendations but reinforces that “Now is the time to harness and accelerate this momentum by working together with urgency and ambition to deliver all the bold reforms needed.”

Scott Morrison’s handling of the situation has seen his approval ratings take an overall drop. Amongst women, his approval rating has gone down by 16 points since the Brittany Higgins rape allegation. However, when the data is examined more closely, the approval rating amongst men has remained fairly stagnant. In fact, in young men aged 18-34, it has actually increased from 56% to 67%. As articulated by Australian political journalist Katherine Murphy, this signifies that “the gender gap is evidenced in the public responses to parliament’s #MeToo moment indicates we have a way to go in this country in establishing a common perspective around the seriousness of these particular issues”. Scarily, the prevalent sexism in the Australian Parliament is in fact symptomatic of a refusal to face up to the gravity of sexual harassment and assault against women in Australian society and culture more generally. Political scientist Louise Chappell says the causes of ingrained sexism in Parliament are twofold: men refusing to give up power and, second, a failure to realise that Australian culture can be sexist: “they won’t see it in structural terms”, she said.

The governance framework for Australian ministerial staff currently considers staff as extensions of their ministers. They have no clear identity of their own, nor do they have an independent integrity authority to whom they can refer to clarify their responsibilities. Despite the large and varied role of ministerial staff, there are few rules or infrastructure that govern staffing arrangements and operations. Each minister structures their own offices according to the PM’s and their own needs. There is no formalised process, resulting in a lack of continuity and high rates of staff turnover. Whilst the need for structural reform is widely acknowledged, the lack of change benefits ministers as it offers them protection in a highly partisan political environment. Ministers can use the current structure to deflect responsibility, safe in the knowledge that the Prime Minister has the final say. However, the lack of a clear structural framework for the functioning and employment of ministerial staff leaves them vulnerable to pressures from senior colleagues as well as leaving them with restricted ability to make formal complaints. This is clearly seen with the initial management of Brittany Higgins’ allegation within parliament and her subsequent inability to have sufficient protection to go through with the allegation without losing her job.

Since the allegations by Ms Higgins, many female politicians, staffers and senators from all political parties have come forward to talk of their experiences in the hostile environment of Australian politics. Former Liberal politician Julia Banks went as far as calling Parliament “The most unsafe workplace in the country”, describing the working environment for women as rampant with “Mansplaining, talking over women, inappropriate jokes, inappropriate touching”. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said male rivals would often shout the names of men she was falsely accused of sleeping with across the chamber: “It was like a game these blokes were playing with just the most intense level of scorn”. Hanson-Young has recently won a defamation lawsuit for $120,000 against a fellow senator David Leyonhjelm who shouted “stop shagging men” at her in 2018 on the floor of the chamber. Former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, spoke of the constant sexism she experiences whilst in politics and, indeed whilst serving as Prime Minister. In a recent interview, she urged women to “turn anger into action”.

This current #MeToo moment in Australian politics is an opportunity for women to demand a safer working environment for themselves and it is an opportunity for men to step up and help facilitate the structural changes that are urgently needed because, as Julia Gillard said in her famous Misogyny Speech on the floor of parliament in 2012, “We are entitled to a better standard than this”.

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