30 November 2021

It's a 'man's world': sexual harassment and bullying rife in toxic House

| Ian Bushnell
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Australian Parliament House

Parliament House: toxic culture of power imbalances and entitlement. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised a multi-party response to a damning review of the parliamentary workplace that found one in three current workers had been sexually harassed.

The much anticipated Australian Human Rights Commission Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces sparked by Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations and made public today describes a “man’s world” in which there is a “considerable hesitancy and fear” about making a complaint or report.

Sexual Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ report, which recommends a separate Parliament House HR office and independent complaints commission, found that about 1 per cent of people had experienced some form of actual or attempted sexual assault.

Of those who said they had been sexually harassed, only 11 per cent reported their experience, while 32 per cent of those who said they had been bullied did so.

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The Review Survey of Parliament House staff showed that more than half (51%) had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault, and more than three-quarters (77%) had experienced, witnessed or heard about these sorts of incidents.

But only half (50%) of people knew how to make a report or complaint about bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Most people who had been bullied did not report it because they thought that things would not change or that nothing would be done (55%), or because they thought it would damage their reputation or career (47%).

Most people who had been sexually harassed did not report it because they did not think it was serious enough (55%) or that people would think they were over-reacting (43%).

The report says that when a complaint was made there were rarely any consequences for the perpetrator.

It describes a toxic culture of power imbalance and entitlement where “the advice was go and cry in the toilet so that nobody can see you, because that’s what it’s like up here” and aspiring male politicians thought nothing of “picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom, comments about appearance, you know, the usual … the culture allowed it”.

The Review Survey results show perpetrators were predominantly in a more powerful position and more than half (53%) who had been sexually harassed, and more than three-quarters (78%) of people who had been bullied, said that their most recent experience of harassment or bullying by a single perpetrator was by someone more senior.

It reveals the devastating impacts on their mental and physical health; their confidence and ability to do their job; and their future career prospects, including their ability to get a reference, as well as significant distress and shame.

Brittany Higgins

Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped in Parliament House in 2019. Photo: Facebook.

One person said that one had tried to commit suicide, another had admitted themselves into a mental facility, and that three women are still seeing psychologists.

“One had a marriage breakdown, and one has completely dislocated with her children as a result of the direct influence of that Member of Parliament … I will never work in a political office again, it’s not worth it,” the person told the AHRC.

Some felt that their only options were to tolerate the misconduct or leave.

Commissioner Jenkins made 28 recommendations that Mr Morrison said would build on measures already taken in response to previous reviews.

She also called for targets to achieve gender balance among parliamentarians as part of a 10-year strategy to advance gender equality, diversity and inclusion.

Mr Morrison said the findings were appalling and the intensity of the workplace was no excuse for inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour.

“Like anyone who works in this building, I find the statistics that are presented there, of course, appalling and disturbing. I wish I found them more surprising,” he said.

“But I find them just as appalling.”

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Mr Morrison praised the courage of Brittany Higgins, whom Commissioner Jenkins briefed before the report was released.

Ms Higgins has thanked the many brave people who shared their stories and contributed to the review.

“I hope all sides of politics not only commit to but implement these recommendations in full,” she said.

Former PM Julia Gillard said it was time to change the federal parliament forever.

“We need a code of conduct and an effective way of receiving and acting on complaints … We need all political parties to work together with urgency and ambition,” she said.

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I’ll believe the government (and other parties) are taking it seriously when I see important people being sacked for harassment, failing to act properly on harassment reported to them, and being aware of it happening and failing to act.

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