The Politics    Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Setting the standard

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison arriving for Question Time today at Parliament House, with the Jenkins Report. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives for Question Time today at Parliament House, with the Jenkins Report. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

A new report calls for parliament to “set the standard” on safe and respectful workplaces, but the PM remains unconvincing

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ long-awaited report into parliamentary workplace culture has been released, containing shocking but not altogether unsurprising findings. The “Set the Standard” review, sparked by the alleged rape of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins in a ministerial office, found that one in three people in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces had experienced some form of sexual harassment (26 per cent by an MP), while just over half had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault (attempted or actual). Speaking to the report, Scott Morrison thanked Jenkins, whose previous report his government ignored for over a year before only partially implementing its recommendations, and then Higgins, the woman whose allegation his party tried to sweep under the rug. The PM expressed his dismay at the report’s “appalling and disturbing” findings, seeming to imply that they were caused by the high stress of parliamentarians’ Very Important Jobs, before claiming that a multi-party response was already underway, with his department to provide any resources required. (Perhaps, while they’re at it, they could wrap up that sham inquiry into who knew what and when about Higgins’ allegation.) Morrison spoke at length about the need for everyone to do better, insisting this was a review into all parties, while talking up everything he had already done. Jenkins’ report calls for parliament to “set the standard, not the floor”. But it’s clear it won’t be the PM who sets it.

Knowing Morrison’s record when it comes to follow-through, calls have already begun for the government to implement in full the report’s 28 recommendations, which include firmer leadership, stronger alcohol policies, better reporting and support mechanisms, and a public acknowledgement of the problem from leaders. Higgins, who was briefed on the report yesterday, has since spoken out, thanking those who shared their testimonies and expressing her hope that politicians would commit to all the recommendations. Jenkins, holding her own press conference just after Morrison’s, said the recommendations were meant to work in conjunction with one another, warning that they “not be cherrypicked for implementation”. She expressed hope that they would be fully implemented, noting that the Coalition, Labor, the Greens and the crossbench had all engaged constructively in the process.

In today’s especially fiery Question Time (which saw Labor leader Anthony Albanese refer to Peter Dutton as a “boofhead”), Morrison continued to imply that the problem was one everyone in the building had an equal share in, as if the Jenkins report hadn’t specifically asked for parliamentary leaders to do more – with no small hint of his old “people in glass houses” dog whistle. In the Senate, meanwhile, independent Jacqui Lambie was reportedly hounded with “growling and dog noises” from someone in the chamber, which was called out by both Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong. Senate president Slade Brockman claimed he did not hear the noises and therefore could not ask for them to be withdrawn, despite Wong having heard them from the other side of the chamber. He eventually asked whoever it was to “reflect and withdraw”, but no one did.

Workplace harassment is, as Morrison keeps insisting, everybody’s problem. But it’s obvious – whether from reading Jenkins’ report or simply watching Question Time – that government leaders have the biggest role to play in addressing the very dark problem at the heart of our democracy. Today, those leaders, all of whom happen to be male, proved they were not up to the task, refusing to take responsibility or to unequivocally call out unacceptable behaviour occurring right under their noses. Jenkins wants parliament to “set the standard, not the floor”. This government, however, lowers the floor each and every day.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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