Earlier this week, the Morrison government announced that it had agreed to adopt all ten recommendations from the final report by Stephanie Foster, a Deputy Secretary at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, into the processes and procedures relating to serious incidents of bullying and sexual abuse in the parliamentary workplace.
Brittany Higgins, whose alleged rape in Parliament House in 2019 launched a movement, welcomed the move. She particularly praised the decision to introduce an independent complaints mechanism in Parliament.
On the ABC’s The Drum, journalist Samantha Maiden, who broke Higgins’ story, called the reforms “historic” and rightly praised Higgins for “what she has done, which no one else has been able to do for years and years of trying, to improve the complaints process around Parliament House.”
But without wishing to be contrary — because I too tip my hat to Higgins for helping get us to this point — I can’t be so positive.
The Foster report and its recommendations are, at best, a band-aid. They won’t make Parliamentary workplaces safe, nor were they intended to. They are a stop on our continuing journey to that much wished for destination, but the road ahead is long.
In the meantime, I’m weary of media headlines that chalk the Foster recommendations up to a win for women and bestow upon Prime Minister Scott Morrison a claim to victory I don’t think he deserves.
To understand why I’ve come to this conclusion, I think it’s worth reviewing the timeline of events that brought us to this point in time.
In December 2017, shortly after #MeToo went viral, I investigated Parliament’s sexual harassment policies for political staffers and found them woefully inadequate – “incomprehensible” is the exact word Alex Grayson, a very experienced employment lawyer I consulted with at Maurice Blackburn, used.
When I pointed out the shortcomings to the Department of Finance, with whom political staffers have the employment relationship under the Members of Parliament (MOPs) Act, they declined to substantively reply.
Fast forward a few months, and in February 2018, Deputy Leader of the Labor Party Tanya Plibersek put the Coalition under further pressure to review the policies – and the Department of Finance agreed. Speaking at a Conference, Plibersek said, “Australians are right to expect that their Parliament should be a leader not a straggler when it comes to preventing sexual harassment.”
The policy was quietly amended in 2019.
On November 9 2020, Louise Milligan’s explosive story “Inside the Canberra Bubble” aired on ABC’s Four Corners. Soon after, Professor Kim Rubenstein and Trish Bergin, co-directors of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra, called for Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, to be given the resources to conduct a national, independent survey of people who work or have worked in the Australian Parliament. Morrison declined to take them up on their suggestion.
Then, on February 15 2021, Samantha Maiden published her first story about Brittany Higgins. Within 24 hours, Morrison announced the Foster review at a press conference where he famously said his wife, Jenny had “clarified” things for him and encouraged him to look at the situation “as a father”.
At the time, many, including Rubinstein and Bergin, voiced concerns about how “independent” the Foster review could be. They continued to press for a truly independent arms lengthy inquiry conducted by Jenkins.
As this debate was unfolding, I took the opportunity to re-visit the Coalition government’s since revised policy. Alex Grayson conducted another thorough review and found that they remained “manifestly inadequate”, further adding that “the (revised) policy could easily lead to outcomes where those who have been sexually assaulted do not complain internally and do not know that they should alert the Police.”
“And even if they did- the Policy (if they ever found it) could easily lead a traumatised victim to believe that this type of reporting is not encouraged,” said Grayson. Given what Higgins has since said about her experiences, how true those words are.
It then took another three weeks and continued torrid headlines for Morrison to concede that a truly independent, arms-length review was necessary. He commissioned such a review from Kate Jenkins on March 5th.
It’s worth noting what happened in the days preceding Morrison’s decision on March 5th to concede that an independent arms-length review was necessary. On March 3rd, Christian Porter identified himself as the minister at the centre of historic rape allegations. And, on March 4th, The Australian reported defence Minister Linda Reynolds called Brittany Higgins a “lying cow”.
It is reasonable to conclude from this timeline that the penny finally dropped for Morrison, as many were so fond of saying on social media at the time, that this was “not going away”. And the timeline illustrates that the Foster review might have been all we got, as Morrison attempted to “manage” a rapidly escalating political crisis, had it not been for the continued perseverance of many calling for more.
My point is that Scott Morrison and his government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table every step of the way — both to acknowledge the severity of the issue and to seek appropriate solutions.
Setting aside the considerable questions I have about the Foster recommendations – will a few hours of sexual harassment training really change anything? Will the “time-stamp” limiting the measures to the current Parliament mean there’s no pathway to justice for many victims and consequences for many perpetrators?
Keeping in mind that the report conceded the Department of Finance had received 70 complaints since 2017, half of those relating to Parliamentarians and MPs – it is clear to me that they were never meant to be a meaningful means of addressing an enormous problem.
They were a calculated, and failed, attempt by Morrison to manage a political crisis.
I await with great anticipation the results of Kate Jenkins far more substantive inquiry, which are expected in November. And I hope that the Morrison government will show the same interest in adopting those recommendations, even though they don’t come from someone inside the tent. That’s the point.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica