Senate debates

Monday, 22 February 2021


Members of Parliament: Staff

10:15 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to take note of Minister Reynolds's statement last week on these matters. Minister Reynolds maintained that when she met with Brittany Higgins, just metres from the couch on which Ms Higgins was allegedly raped, she didn't know about the allegations, yet several days earlier her chief of staff had received advice from the department about what to do when staff make a complaint of sexual assault. The Prime Minister has maintained that, despite countless people, many of whom work in his office, being aware of the rape allegations, as we now know, his office didn't know until 12 February. He says he personally didn't know until the story broke last Monday. Many questions remain, yet three of the four reviews that have been announced, in a flurry of response, are internal reviews. That is not good enough when the culture of keeping things in-house is what has led to this culture of silencing.

It's taken very brave women, so wronged by the system, to speak out. Over the weekend two more women came forward alleging they had been raped by the same perpetrator. This should weigh heavily on those who failed to act decisively in response to Brittany Higgins's allegations. That's why the particular details of how this place, this government, failed Brittany Higgins are important. It's essential to identify who knew what when and what has been done to ensure that no-one else goes through what Brittany Higgins went through. An internal investigation into how Brittany Higgins's case went so wrong is not enough, and I will be moving a motion later today calling for an independent inquiry. I hope that that motion gets the support of all people in this chamber.

This place, this government, this parliament and those that have preceded them have failed many others who have worked here. We know the names of Brittany Higgins, Rachelle Miller and Chelsey Potter, but they're not alone. Countless staff members, predominantly young women, have felt forced from this place by harassment, predatory behaviour, bullying and assault. We need to dismantle the culture that has allowed so many to get away with so much for so long. This is a culture that blames victims, as the Prime Minister did last week, for getting themselves into vulnerable situations. This is a culture that sees women's worth only in relation to men: as daughters or as wives, not as individuals worthy of value irrespective of their relationship with a man. This is a culture that closes its eyes when powerful men use, abuse and discard women and rarely suffer consequences—they even retain their ministries. This is a culture that adds a bonk ban to the ministerial standards yet washes its hands of further responsibility. This is a culture that allows Mr Craig Kelly's adviser to remain on staff despite multiple allegations of highly inappropriate conduct.

Yes, we need a comprehensive review of the complaints process and an independent body so that no-one feels, as Brittany Higgins did, that making a complaint will end their career. We also need an enforceable code of conduct binding senators, members and senior staff to the highest standards of behaviour, and for there to be genuine consequences when we fail to meet those standards. More than that, we need to systematically unpick the misogyny, the inequality and the privilege that create a culture in which what happened to Brittany Higgins, Rachelle Miller, Chelsey Potter, Dhanya Mani and so many others is downplayed as just what happens in parliament.

This is not a problem unique to any particular party, to this parliament or to politics. Nearly 12 months ago the Sex Discrimination Commissioner released the damming report Respect@Work: national inquiryinto sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, which found that workplace sexual harassment is prevalent and pervasive and that most people who experience sexual harassment never report it. Overwhelmingly, the commission heard that gender inequality was a key driver of harassment.

In her powerful piece in The Saturday Paper, Dhanya Mani, who went public in 2017 about her assault by a fellow staffer, said:

The reason for Brittany's assault, and mine—and the ongoing disclosures I receive from other women—is the same reason there have been sexual abuse scandals in every self-regulating, autonomous or unpoliced fiefdom of power and privilege. What Australia seems wilfully blind to is that each of its enclaves of power—from religious institutions such as the Catholic Church, to the judiciary, corporations and financial institutions, to our parliaments—has a misogynistic, patriarchal power structure that enables the oppression, vilification and sexual abuse of women.

She goes on:

Our parliaments house the most powerful people in the country, many of them white men. They have used their power to create one of the most exploitative and damaging workplaces imaginable.

I note that over the weekend a petition was signed by more than 2,000 Sydney private school students calling for more to be done to teach respectful relationships and what consent means. The petition calls out rape culture and outlines over 500 experiences of assault. We shouldn't be surprised that this culture persists in politics, but this is not a problem that's unique to politics; this is a problem, however, that we have an obligation to fix.

The Respect@Work report sets out a comprehensive reform framework, including positive duties of care and primary prevention. The government needs to urgently act on these recommendations. A comprehensive, transparent, independent review of the parliamentary culture is long overdue, and I look forward to working across the chamber to make it happen. Current and former staff must be involved in setting the scope of any independent review. The experiences of those most vulnerable to the power imbalance in this place must inform how we move forward.

When asked whether she has hope that the discussions over the past week signal a change, Dhanya Mani said absolutely not. It's devastating to hear that someone who is working tirelessly to turn her trauma into advocacy has no faith in us to fix it. But we owe it to Dhanya Mani to prove her wrong. We owe it to Brittany Higgins, to the countless young women that the current system has failed, to Australians who despair at the example set by this place and to the young women to whom we want to show that politics is a safe place for them to be. We owe it to all women to provide safe workplaces everywhere. The Prime Minister leads this culture, and he needs to finally show some leadership.


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