Like many women who work in parliament, the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins has absolutely rocked me. Since last Monday, I have found myself in various states of rage and disbelief, at times choking with anger at how a system could treat an alleged rape victim with such brutal inhumanity.
But when I look back at the time I have been in parliament, there is a pattern of events. Julia Banks claimed she was bullied and harassed, until she left her own party, then the parliament. Emma Husar was accused of inappropriate, sexualised behaviour that turned out to be untrue – but not before she too announced she would resign. Three Liberal staffers claimed to have been sexually harassed, yet they left the parliament, while the male perpetrators of the alleged crimes remain unaccountable. Allegations of sexist and offensive actions of the attorney general and industrial relations minister, Christian Porter, some of which he has rejected, were aired on Four Corners with no accountability to follow. An electorate officer of Craig Kelly has allegedly forced office interns to hug and kiss him. He has previously told the Guardian that he would not respond to these allegations given the matters are before courts, and remains today in Kelly’s employment.
The parliament has been in turmoil for a week now over what happened to Brittany Higgins. There has been time to listen and reflect. Rhetorically at least, the seriousness of what has happened seems to be broadly understood – though I don’t believe this was the case in either party in the first days after Higgins’ interview. But I remain disturbed by the conversation in both major parties for two reasons.
First, the conversation revolves around the technical. Reviews of who knew what and when. Processes being remade. More inquiries, new procedures. These are important parts of the discussion, but they miss the main game.
Second, how the predominantly male leaders of our country define the problem. Still today, one week on, the discussion is about womens’ right to feel safe. How our workplace should be one where women don’t feel vulnerable.
Women and their feelings are not the problem here to be solved. Vulnerability is not what caused Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape or any of the instances of alleged assault or misogyny I mentioned above.
The problem is simply and coldly this: in the Australian parliament, a man allegedly believed he could rape a woman metres from the prime minister’s office, and face no consequences. His belief was entirely reasonable because, as we know, he was almost right.
For Higgins to make her voice heard, to get any justice for a reprehensible crime allegedly committed against her, she had to do the unthinkable: go public, do a TV interview, and turn her entire life upside down, forever.
Perhaps it sounds nit-picky to find a distinction here between women and their rights, and some men and their behaviour. But how we define the problem matters. Solving the latter is going to take a bit more than setting up a hotline staff can call if they have been sexually assaulted by a colleague. It begins with national leaders, across the board, reflecting deeply on what we have done to allow this culture to develop.
Since last week, I have heard several of our nation’s leaders decry the culture of the parliament. I have not heard a single instance of serious and genuine self-reflection about what these leaders have done to create this culture – a culture they drive and preside over.
In Parliament House, men have a greater sense of entitlement than in any other workplace I have otherwise worked in. Men don’t just dominate the House of Representatives and almost all the critical positions of power – formal and informal – in both parties. They occupy the vast majority of senior staffing roles. They strut the hallways, loll on couches, talk loudly and laugh raucously at the cafe, and take up more space in every part of the building.
There are many thoughtful, wonderful men who work at parliament. Some of the men I work with go to great lengths to ensure that the women around them are treated fairly. But Higgins’ case, and the reaction to it, shows that their values do not dominate this environment.
Parliament is a workplace where some men feel they can act with impunity – that the system will protect them from accountability. For many men, that is enough to behave inappropriately from time to time. For some men, it appears enough to commit a crime.
There are many people to blame for the situation in parliament. National leaders who have allowed it to descend to this point. The culture of the government, which by instinct – as Laura Tingle pointed out on the ABC’s 7.30 last week – treated this as a sex scandal rather than an allegation of a crime.
But there is a single person who is blameless in this despicable debacle: Brittany Higgins. And if we needed any proof of the sickness of the culture in parliament, it is that she is the only person to date who has paid any price for what happened to her.
Surely that says more than anything at all about what’s wrong with this work environment, and how we can start to fix it.
• Clare O’Neil is the Labor member for Hotham, Victoria and shadow minister for senior Australians and aged care services