This is the first line of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ independent inquiry into Parliamentary workplaces, Set the Standard, which was released yesterday: “This is Parliament. It should set the standard for workplace culture, not the floor of what culture should be.”
If you sense this rather curt opener is meant to send a strong message to the Morrison government, you’re probably right.
That line and Jenkins’ overall demeaner at yesterday’s press conference for the launch of the report was definitely a vibe, mirroring Australian women’s impatience with the Morrison government — and with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in particular, for his continued insistence that he doesn’t have a personal responsibility to show leadership when it comes to women’s safety.
Further revealing that deep sense of exasperation, Jenkins also took steps to pre-empt any Morrison government attempt to cherry pick her recommendations (as happened to her broader [email protected] sexual harassment inquiry earlier this year), stating clearly that the 28 recommendations were “a package, mutually reinforcing and should not be cherry picked for implementation”.
What’s more, Jenkins – on more than one occasion — reminded the gathered media (though her real audience was undoubtably the Prime Minister) that the last year “has made clear this is an issue that matters to an increasing number of Australians”. Translation: women’s safety will be an election issue and Morrison’s continued tendency to dodge leadership responsibility in this area will come at his peril.
The shocking findings of the report partly explain Jenkins’ tone and her sense of urgency. One in three parliamentary staffers who responded to the review said they had been sexually harassed. And just over half of all people currently working in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces have experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault.
Shockingly, Jenkins said that sexual harassment and assault were so pervasive in Parliament that, “women told us they felt ‘lucky’ if they had not directly experienced sexual harassment and assault”.
That observation gives a whole new, sinister meaning to notion of Australia as a “lucky” country.
The Coalition government and Scott Morrison’s long, and I mean long, track record of evading responsibility for change also explains the tone and sense of urgency surrounding the launch of yesterday’s report.
To understand why, it’s worth revisiting the relatively recent events that have led us to this watershed moment.
Firstly, I am reminded of the time — way back in 2017 shortly after the #MeToo hashtag first went viral – when I was the first, and at the time only, Australian journalist who thought it was worth having a look at the Australian Parliament’s sexual harassment policies for political staffers. As the #MeToo movement claimed high profile political scalps elsewhere, I surmised that it would eventually arrive in Canberra. I certainly didn’t think it would take a further three years, but that’s another story.
My investigation found them to be “woefully inadequate”, failing even to meet the most basic standards of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s best practice guidelines. At the time, the Department of Finance ,who have responsibility for Parliamentary staff under the MOP(s) Act, refused to acknowledge there was a problem or accept that Parliament should be an “exemplary workplace”, or as Jenkins put it “set the standard”. I did politely suggest this was an opportunity to get out ahead of the inevitable #MPToo scandals, but the department politely declined to take my advice.
Then in November 2020, Louise Milligan’s explosive story “Inside the Canberra Bubble” aired on the 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 Jenkins 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 that suggestion.
Finally, in February 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, continued to voice concerns about how “independent” the Foster review could be given it was led by a senior member of the Prime Minister’s staff. And they continued to press for a truly independent, arms lengthy inquiry conducted by Jenkins — to no avail.
It took another three weeks and continued torrid headlines for Morrison to concede that an independent, arms-length review was necessary. He commissioned that review, now the resulting Set the Standard report, from Jenkins on March 5th.
Here’s what happened in the days preceding Morrison’s concession an independent review was necessary. On March 3rd, Christian Porter identified himself as the minister at the centre of a historic rape allegation, an allegation he vigorously denies. And, on March 4th, The Australian reported defence Minister Linda Reynolds had called Brittany Higgins a “lying cow”.
The point of this canter through recent history is this: Scott Morrison had to be dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way, despite his somewhat Trumpian claim yesterday that, “we are dealing with this as no other government has done before”.
I wouldn’t describe this series of events as the kind of leadership on women’s safety “no other government” has demonstrated before. Nor, I believe, would the women of Australia.
The Prime Minister was yesterday at pains to emphasise– again – that he “hears” the women of Australia, the same women he conceded back in March of this year had been putting up with this “rubbish and crap” for too long.
But is Scott Morrison really listening? And more to the point, is he capable of hearing, really hearing, the message that is now rather bluntly being conveyed to him…. and of understanding what this moment requires of him? Sadly, I suspect the answer to that question is no.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica