Patriarchy in Parliament

June 16, 2023
Brittany Higgins has faced stomach churning attacks from the corporate media
Brittany Higgins is yet to receive any justice over her allegation that fellow staffer Bruce Lehrmann raped her. Image: Green Left

The spectacle of Coalition MPs weaponising Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape in Parliament House in 2019 because they thought they had a “scalp” (Minister for Women Katy Gallagher) was stomach churning.

However, more disturbing is the rude reminder about how entrenched sexism is — including in parliament, the so-called "people’s house".

Coalition MPs’ attack campaign on Gallagher over who knew what, when and what they did about it, came to a sudden halt mid-week after Senator Lidia Thorpe outed their hypocrisy, including alleging that she was sexually harassed by Coalition Senator David Van.

Van has been expelled from the Coalition party room. Other Coalition MPs confirmed his sexist pattern of behavior, which forced Liberal leader Peter Dutton’s hand.

Van denies he assaulted anyone, although he admits to apologising to a colleague for repeatedly touching her when she had asked him not to.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s legal definition of sexual harassment includes more than “sexually explicit physical contact” and “sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages”: it also includes “unwelcome touching”, “staring or leering” and making “suggestive comments or jokes”.

These patterns of behaviour are so much a reality for so many women that even well-meaning people still say things such as: “But, she didn’t get my joke”; or “She took it out of context”; or “She never used to be like that”.

These attitudes reflect how entrenched sexism is: assaults are passed off as “misunderstandings” — on the women’s part, no less.

Sexual harassment, including assault, is so commonplace that women find it hard to report it, fearing they will not be believed or that they should “suck it up”.

After Higgins’ allegations about being raped in a parliamentary office, then-PM Scott Morrison initiated several inquiries: the Stephanie Foster review into how serious incidents are handled at Parliament House; Phil Gaetjens’ report of who knew what and when about the alleged rape; John Kunkel’s inquiry into the behaviour of the PM’s media staff; the Celia Hammond review of how Coalition offices operate; and Kate Jenkins inquiry into parliament’s workplace culture.

Sex Discrimination commissioner Jenkins’ inquiry on behalf of the federal government was tabled on November 2021. It made 55 recommendations; a year later Morrison announced he would “accept” them.

Angela Priestly from Women’s Agenda wrote in 2021 that the recommendations were “revolutionary”, offering “solid regulatory framework and better support for survivors”. She said their “adoption” will mean sexual harassment is included in the definition of “serious misconduct across all workplaces — and therefore a valid reason for dismissal”.

She said they “would require significant Commonwealth funding if they are to be adopted” — a lot more than “the pathetic $2.1 million provided in the 2020 Budget to ‘help prevent sexual harassment in Australian workplaces’”.

But “accepting” or “adopting” recommendations are two very different things. Enforcing them is another.

Safe Work Australia figures from January last year show that one-in-three people experienced harassment at work (and we should assume that’s at the low end). It said workplace sexual harassment can cause “both psychological and physical harm”, but it can also affect others.

“Sexual harassment can take many forms. It can be overt, covert or subtle. It can be repeated or a one-off incident. Sexual harassment can cause harm to the person it is directed at, as well as anyone who witnesses the behaviour.” 

It said the person in charge of the business (or party) has “a positive duty … to do all that you reasonably can to eliminate or minimise the risk of sexual harassment at work.”

In many workplaces, including parliament as we’ve heard over the past week, this duty is not being taken seriously.

Thorpe’s anger at Van’s hypocritical attacks on Gallagher prompted her to use parliamentary privilege to call him out. She was forced to retract her words, but not the message. Unfortunately, Thorpe was not taken seriously until Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker also made allegations against Van — confirming a pattern of behaviour.

Higgins, meanwhile, is yet to receive any justice over her allegation that fellow staffer Bruce Lehrmann raped her.

The weaponisation of this case has not changed workplace culture, as some commentators have opined. It has underscored just how far we are from having safe workplaces where respect at work is more than a slogan.

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