3 March 2021

The 'Canberra bubble' of gender inequality isn't confined to just Parliament House

| Zoya Patel
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Parliament House

The issues now embroiling Parliament House also occur in the broader Canberra community and workplaces. Photo: File.

I know I’m not alone in finding the constant conflation of ‘Canberra’ with ‘Parliament House’ frustrating. As a proud (almost) life-long Canberran, I know that my home is made of far more unique characteristics than simply housing the national seat of politics.

But I also think we may be too quick to dismiss the recent allegations of sexual assault and harassment issues at Parliament House as a problem removed from Canberra. Despite all the wonderful aspects of Canberra culture, it would be naïve to claim that sexism and gender inequality isn’t a problem here.

There can be no doubt that the allegations of rape and harassment that have plagued political parties and their staff on the Hill point to an endemic issue at the heart of politics. Sexism is rife in politics, and when combined with the long hours, insecurity and power discrepancies at play in political offices, it quickly becomes more sinister. It has resulted in the assault of numerous women who should have been safe and protected within their workplaces.

But as well as rightfully holding political parties to account, these revelations present an opportunity for all Australians to reflect on the structural gender inequality that continues to exist in this country, and Canberra is no different.

From October to December 2020, ACT Policing had 96 reports of sexual assault across Canberra. Of course, we know that the number of reported incidents are typically lower than the actual occurrence rate because many women won’t disclose their experience of sexual assault for fear of stigma and ongoing consequences – made worse by the fact that many perpetrators of sexual assault are known to the victim.

Ninety-six reports is not a large number over the course of three months. By all accounts, Canberra is by and large a safe and inclusive community. But even one incidence of sexual assault is too many.

We have a tendency in this city to rely on the statistics of the majority to ignore the plight of the minority.

On average, Canberrans are wealthier, healthier, more educated and more progressive than the rest of the country. But rather than using these facts to justify inaction on the basis that there is so little inequality and injustice in Canberra compared with other jurisdictions, why don’t we use our positive starting place to try harder to eradicate abuse and inequality entirely?

Arguably, if we have more resources, awareness and ability in Canberra, we should be in a more enabling position from which to try to genuinely prevent sexual assault and harassment from occurring. This should be a motivating factor, not a justification for inaction.

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From a decade of working in the women’s sector, I’m well aware that ending sexual harassment is a complex goal that needs interventions at all ends of the spectrum. The only genuine way to combat it is through primary prevention (teaching young people about gender equality and respectful relationships), secondary interventions (key touchpoints with first time or potential offenders to prevent the behaviour from reoccurring) and tertiary intervention (just, proper and effective punishment for criminal acts of sexual assault and harassment and rehabilitation for perpetrators). That means a whole-of-community response that requires buy-in from us all.

This has to occur across the country, but Canberra still has a role to play. We can do better to ensure that women in our city are safe and supported, and that we continuously work towards a zero incidence rate of assault.

The Canberra ‘bubble’ doesn’t just exist at Parliament House. The majority of Canberrans live in a bubble of privilege and affluence – but those on the other side need our help to be included. We all have a part to play.

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Probably easier for men to just stop hiring women or working with them. It appears to be too much of a risk , because you never know when false allegations might be made, and men are decided guilty no matter what.

The disrespect towards women had been encountered in many workplaces that I had worked in, in Canberra. The irony is that because I am male, some coworkers assumed that I would go along with their jokes, which I didn’t. It’s up to everyone to ensure that this culture is unacceptable. It was from a minority of staffs and mostly older staff, but it wasn’t good enough as it came from managerial and upper level staff.

Stella Bellafonte5:11 pm 04 Mar 21

You wouldn’t have a clue what actually goes on behind closed doors, unless you’re the dirty perv with a camera propped and ready for the unwitting participants.
No, the more than likely scenario is that you’ve been privy to locker room talk where majority of the time, men embellish their sexual fantasies as reality and you not only believed it but also formed an opinion about the type of person you consider less because they had sex at work. It is THAT type of behaviour that should be snuffed out because your mates are talking about your wife, your mother, your daughter and your grand daughters and you’re telling them to just get over it.

cockneyreject3:11 pm 04 Mar 21

I agree, this is an issue where we should spare a thought for those who are on the ‘other side’ (recent immigrants or working visa holders in the services sector for example), and do something about it. The problem for them isn’t remorse over a career-enhancing desktop dalliance in the voucher room; it’s much more serious than that, such are the more expansive power imbalances.

It’s telling that the issue really only gets traction when those allegedly on the receiving end have high status such that they register on the ABC’s radar, but if that’s what it takes to get it out there, so be it.

Capital Retro5:16 pm 04 Mar 21

No, I wasn’t saying it was a “career-enhancing desktop dalliance in the voucher room” at all and if this is what you see you have misunderstood what was actually happening which was harmless “good fun” for both sexes.

What a thoughtless, demeaning comment. “So, get over it” is a sentiment that we as a society should be fighting against, as it minimizes the experience and the physical and mental harm suffered by victims.

Just because your experience of a “first time” sexual encounter took place in a bank voucher room, doesn’t mean others had the same experience. Like it or not, gender inequality and sexual harassment both exist.

Capital Retro2:42 pm 04 Mar 21

It wasn’t my “first time” experience and I didn’t say it was.

How many Canberrans were conceived in one of the PS hostels that were here in the early days after a Friday night at the pub?

It takes “two to tango”.

Christ, you really need to get over it.

No, what we should be fighting against is trial by media and the fact that unsubstantiated accusations made public severely damage the name, reputation, career and entire life of innocent people.

“So, get over it.”
“Christ, you really need to get over it.”

What a lack empathy and awareness you are demonstrating. You were fine, so everyone else is fine. With your attitude though, it makes me wonder if all your encounters were truly consensual for BOTH parties. Or if emotional pressure was bought to bare. Enough of this pressure and some less secure people finally are worn down and go along with it, when really they didn’t want to. The other party who wore them down, then claims it’s consensual, and “It takes “two to tango””. This happens with a power imbalance, which can be seniority in a workplace, or it can be the power imbalance of a dominant person over a less dominant person. It’s always consensual to the dominant person.

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