Sex, drugs and cover ups: toxic culture pervades the Australian political and justice systems

Sex, drugs and cover ups: toxic culture pervades the Australian political and justice systems


Brittany Higgins’ brave revelations about what went on at Parliament House on the evening of 23 March 2019 have dominated Australian headlines this week.

And while I’m as appalled as everyone else, as a lawyer and a woman, I’m sadly not surprised.

It came as little surprise to me that such abominable behaviour could occur within an organisation that is supposed to be a pillar of responsibility and integrity. The parallels between the legal fraternity and the political work environment are significant.

For starters, many of the staff in less senior roles are young and female. Of 151 Senators and Members of Parliament, only 47 are women. And while women have outnumbered men in the legal profession since 2018, fewer than a third of them rise to the rank of partner.

The constant presence of alcohol, frequently instigated by senior team members, is commonplace in adversarial and competitive workplaces– despite the many years of research linking alcohol and drugs with mental health problems.

Perhaps the most telling and insidious commonality between the experiences of young women in both professions is the fear of the consequences for their career if they out their abuser.

The threat of termination, demotion, being overlooked for promotion or even worsening of the conduct is unspoken, but the lack of mechanisms for safely reporting misconduct and the absence of visibility into investigations speaks volumes.

Most people would think that politicians – as our democratically elected representatives – would be held to the highest standards of integrity and accountability and yet, the government of the day has shown that serious allegations of sexual misconduct go not only uninvestigated but unpunished.

As for our legal system? It’s clear that this issue runs all the way to the top.

Just last year, former Justice Dyson Heydon was finally exposed, with an independent investigation finding he had sexually harassed six junior staff members. Shockingly, it took more than 15 years for an investigation into Heydon J’s alleged conduct, despite his misconduct being widely known as an “open secret” amongst the legal fraternity, with allegations of inappropriate behaviour extending all the way back to his university days.

It boggles the mind to think that a judge in the highest court in the land – the ultimate arbiter of justice – was allowed to get away with such reprehensible behaviour for so long.

Despite over half of women in law actually reporting having experienced sexual harassment, and law societies espousing reporting for professional standards violations, there are few reported cases of sexual harassment leading to any significant consequences for offenders.

Is it a mere coincidence that these two power structures display such strikingly similar features of toxic workplace culture?

I’d say not. In fact, lawyers make up a significant proportion of the professions of parliamentarians. In 2013, almost one-quarter of Federal Members held legal qualifications. Of the 30 Prime Ministers we’ve had, 11 had legal backgrounds.

It’s not a question of whether the legal profession has infected the political landscape with its toxic masculinity or vice versa, rather an observation that the old-school, patriarchal power dynamic which has underscored these professions for decades is what’s responsible for this disgraceful behaviour continuing to occur – and at the highest levels – and nothing really being done about it.

In an expose on sexual harassment in the legal profession aptly titled ‘Hunting Season’, author Belinda Crosbie was spot on when she said “harassers are thriving on the power, hierarchy, isolation, coercive competition, and control available to them”.

What’s needed – and urgently – is more women in senior leadership in politics and law, because it’s women who create a culture of integrity accountability from the top down.

It was High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel who was responsible for instigating the investigation into former Justice Dyson Heydon and who personally apologised to each of the victims. Keifel CJ’s Court was quick to adopt and act on the six recommendations of the report.

Similarly, last year Helen Haines MP introduced the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill and has been supported by Rebekha Sharkie MP and MP Zali Steggall in calling for the establishing of a powerful oversight body to investigate corruption by Members of Parliament. Given the less than proactive approach to current and past allegations of misconduct, it’s little surprise this powerful integrity commission is struggling to gather traction within Parliament.

With political staffers and female lawyers inevitably resigning or even giving up their profession altogether after suffering this abhorrent treatment in silence, the current state of our justice and political system is an embarrassment to us all. With our best and brightest minds leaving some of the most critical roles in public service, what hope is there for strong women to rise into the positions of leadership we need them to fill in order to make a change?

It was only after a news outlet finally gave Higgins a voice that the Prime Minister announced an investigation into the workplace culture within Parliament (and apparently only at the urging of his wife to consider what if the victim was his daughter). This is typical of the type of reactionary actions hastily put together by the top echelons within the system to stem media and community outrage.

It comes as little surprise to this writer that Higgins has been the one to demand substantive action, including a comprehensive legislative review and implementation of an independent reporting mechanism for staff to confidently and safely make complaints. Higgins is the perfect example of a young woman who shows incredible promise as a future leader, and we can only hope that her harrowing experience doesn’t stop her from rising through the ranks in future.

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