Members of federal parliament from across the political spectrum are calling for code of conduct to be introduced for politicians to improve standards for junior staffers and all women in parliament.
Several female politicians, including Greens Senator Larissa Waters, Labor MP Anne Aly, and Independent MP Helen Haines attended a summit run by the Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership this week, where they made the call to improve parliamentary standards.
The summit was organised to establish a model of conduct for federal parliament, that will be submitted to the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces headed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
The push for a code of conduct, as well as a more gender equal and diverse parliament, comes in the wake of revelations about a toxic, boys’ club culture in parliament that sidelines women, and disregards the needs of staffers in the building. The review by Kate Jenkins was established in the wake of the rape allegations made by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.
The Greens spokesperson for women, Senator Larissa Waters told Women’s Agenda the existing complaints process that parliamentary staff can use is incapable of delivering results.
“No one really knows what it is, or who to pick up the phone to, and because it’s run by the finance department, it’s not able to sanction any member of parliament, if they are the offending person,” Senator Waters said.
“It’s a process that cannot deliver a result for a staff member where their abuser, harasser or bully is their boss.”
Senator Waters also said the existing ministerial standards are not independently administered, and are only enforced at the whim of the prime minister.
“It basically means it’s never enforced. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” she said.
The Greens proposed a code of conduct model well before Brittany Higgins’ allegations came to light, that would be enforced by an independent parliamentary standards commissioner with the power take disciplinary action against MPs. It was proposed in the context of “general poor behaviour” and is even more relevant now, Senator Waters said.
“The behaviour of members of parliament is, in my view, getting worse,” she said. “It’s worse than it was ten years ago and that’s totally unacceptable.”
A recent study from the Centre of Public Integrity found that a failure to introduce a code of conduct has left Australia’s regulation of federal politicians weaker than comparable nations like Canada, the UK and New Zealand.
In 2020, Independent MP Helen Haines put forward a bill to establish a federal integrity commission, which also included a parliamentary code of conduct for politicians, designed to build respect and integrity in parliament.
Speaking at the summit, Anne Aly said “It’s astounding that we’re still talking about this issue in 2021.
“We are talking about this today as we’re still dealing with the legacy of misogyny in parliament,” Aly said. “While we have increased numbers of women in parliament it’s not enough.”
This week, it’s also come to light that the government’s plan for sexual harassment training in parliament will involve just one hour of training for MPs and their senior staff, and attendance to these sessions will be optional. Junior staffers will receive two hours of training, which may be mandatory.
According to the ABC, by the end of the session, managers and MPs should be able to understand “behaviours [that] do or do not constitute assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment and serious and systemic bullying and harassment”.
“The prime minister doesn’t seem to understand that it’s members of parliament who are part of the problem,” Senator Waters said. “Why are you giving MPs a free pass by saying it’s optional? Why is it only one hour? It’s not an adequate response to the vast cultural changes that need to occur, including at MP level.”
“It’s a protection racket by the prime minister who has turned a blind eye to so much dodgy behaviour by so many of his ministers over so many years. This feels like a continuation of him just not getting it.”