Politicians and parties are floundering on sexism and sexual harassment
In questioning after her National Press Club address today, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins was soon pressed on the allegations made by several female MPs, including former deputy leader Julie Bishop, of bullying in the Liberal Party during the recent leadership spill. “I think that there’s a certain degree of political #MeToo at the moment,” Jenkins said. “I know that we’re talking Liberal women, but I also have heard women on all sides of politics questioning … my first response to that is, I’m really pleased that this conversation is happening.” Part of the problem is the under-representation of women in politics, and Jenkins noted that Australia has plunged on the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, from 15th in 2006 to 35th now; Jenkins also noted that Australia’s worst ranking of all is on women’s political empowerment. “We’re extremely concerned about the slow progress,” she said. On the difficult question of what to do about it, however, Jenkins had to tread carefully.
Quotas? Strictly defined, said Jenkins, quotas require legislation. So-called “targets with teeth”, which link gender equity to executive remuneration, for example, are harder to imagine in politics. “Should the prime minister get his pay docked, if, for example, there’s not progress on parity or representation?” asked The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy. In the end, Jenkins emphasised that leadership from the very top was as important if not more important than targets. “Where that works best is where the top leadership, and that’s usually the CEO, but also the top leadership team, is really clear that they want this change to happen,” Jenkins said. In the context of the Liberal Party allegations, that means prime minister Scott Morrison.
But it now seems likely the allegations that women MPs in the Liberal Party were bullied during the leadership spill are going to be swept under the carpet. Senator Lucy Gichuhi, who had flagged that she would name names in parliament, tweeted yesterday that she had discussed her concerns privately with the PM and that the bullying she had called out was not from within parliament. Strange, because the whole debate was about bullying in the parliament. Still, it was always strange that an outing of bullies inside the Liberal Party would have to come from Gichuhi, who is a short-term member of the party and has lost preselection for a winnable spot on the party’s South Australian Senate ticket. Asked about the meeting on the ABC’s 7.30 program last night, Morrison said no names had been provided to him, and that Gichuhi “told me very plainly that she was not bullied by anybody here in Canberra in relation to that matter”. Asked in parliament this afternoon about the bullying, Morrison said: “We will continue to deal with any issues that arise from that within the normal process,” referring to the role of the party whips, then added: “I am absolutely satisfied that there was no gender-specific lobbying or pressure placed on members.”
If the men of the Liberal Party want to move on – nothing to see here – the public won’t buy it. Comments from Julie Bishop, Kelly O’Dwyer, Julia Banks and Lucy Gichuhi won’t be retracted or forgotten. Equally, there is no doubt that all the major political parties have a problem dealing with sexual harassment. The political career of Labor MP Emma Husar was ruined by what she called slut-shaming (echoing the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young’s denunciation of sexist abuse hurled at her by Senator David Leyonhjelm) that emerged in the course of a party investigation into allegations that she bullied her own staff.
The Nationals have been unable to respond to allegations of sexual harassment against Barnaby Joyce, lodged by WA businesswoman Catherine Marriott, who is now planning to speak publicly about her experience for the first time next month. The Greens have been forced on to the back foot by a string of allegations, including a complaint against former Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber, who resigned last year, and which resulted in a confidential settlement and payout.
The parliament is a workplace like no other, and political parties themselves are unique organisations, so solutions are not easy to identify. Perhaps the answer lies in a stricter code of conduct for MPs, which Greens Leader Richard Di Natale proposed in the Senate last month, and which independent Cathy McGowan has proposed in the lower house.
The most significant change is to get more women into parliament, and there is no doubt that on this front the Coalition have lagged behind the Greens and Labor. Liberals Craig Laundy and John Hewson have backed quotas. Hewson toldRN Breakfast this morning that, given the kind of men who made it into parliament, it was hard to argue that there was some kind of merit process. In fact, he said, their main skill was manipulating preselection. Jenkins said much the same today: “My view is that there is not some wondrous, impartial and fair system of merit in place in lots of our … workplaces,” Jenkins said. “If there was, then we know that it’s not that men are this much better than women. We would have more women [alongside] men.” Morrison made it clear last night he had never supported quotas, and never would: “I believe in any political organisation it should be a matter of one’s own effort and exertion and credibility and merit.” As in so many areas, for this PM no policy is the best policy.
since this morning
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Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
In questioning after her National Press Club address today, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins was soon pressed on the allegations made by several female MPs, including former deputy leader Julie Bishop, of bullying in the Liberal Party during the recent leadership spill. “I think that there’s a certain degree of political #MeToo at the moment,” Jenkins said. “I know that we’re talking Liberal women, but I also have heard women on all sides of politics questioning … my first response to that is, I’m really pleased that this conversation is happening.” Part of the problem is the under-representation of women in politics, and Jenkins noted that Australia has...