Is the Fight Against Sexism in Australia’s Politics Different This Time?

Is the Fight Against Sexism in Australia’s Politics Different This

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For most of the past week, I’ve been interviewing current and former members of Parliament about the mistreatment of women in Australian politics. I’ve spoken mainly to those with direct experience inside the system, and I found myself starting off with the same question: Does what’s happening now feel different?

Everyone — from Tanya Plibersek in Labor, to Dr. Anne Webster of the National Party, to Julia Banks, who gave up her Liberal Party seat in 2019 — responded with the same answer. Yes.

They all told me that, six weeks after Brittany Higgins spoke up with her allegation of rape in the defense minister’s office when she was a staffer in 2019, the dynamic has changed. Women are angry and unified, speaking up in politics and beyond. More of the men who used to brush off complaints of sexism as whining about the always-tough arena of politics have started to see that it’s an uneven playing field, where women compete with extra burdens and threats.

But is that enough to change the system, to make it fair and equal? Maybe not, they said — not yet.

“It feels different in terms of momentum, in terms of moving toward change,” Ms. Banks told me. “But I do worry about the leadership and the lack of accountability. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve seen a lack of accountability before — it can’t be treated like a P.R. issue.”

Dr. Webster, a sociologist who is the National party’s point person on gender issues, compared the level of public outrage to a tsunami, with an impact still unknown.

“The events of the last six weeks, nobody is taking them lying down,” she said. “Everyone is on alert and wondering: Where are we going from here?”

What many of the women found discouraging was the lack, so far, of demonstrable reform. The most obvious solutions I heard proposed by current and former lawmakers, along with political scientists and legal experts, have yet to become a reality, or even a likely possibility.

Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University and a former parliamentary staffer, noted that Parliament still does not have an independent reporting system for workplace complaints, even after Ms. Higgins’s allegations and a slew of additional scandals and accusations against men in government.

An independent reporting system has long been the standard in most big businesses, universities and large institutions of any kind. Over the past few years, Canada and England have updated workplace protocols in their parliaments with a more modern system that makes it easier for victims of bullying or abuse to come forward without repurcussions.

Australia has not. In Parliament and in politics generally, everything still goes through the parties. That creates obvious conflicts of interest and contributes to the kind of situation that Ms. Higgins described, where she said she felt pressured not to report the rape allegation to police because it would have hurt the Liberal Party’s chances in the 2019 election.

Just as importantly if not more so, I was also told, men — not just women — need to do a better job of enforcing reasonable standards of behavior. Men need to redraw the lines of what is acceptable and then enforce the rules with zero tolerance.

“We need to recognize that it wasn’t women who established the culture in Parliament; it wasn’t women who set up the practices,” said Kate Ellis, a Labor Party lawmaker from 2004 to 2019. “It’s been men and it’s those men who need to stand up now and change.”

Louise Chappell, a political scientist at the University of New South Wales who has studied gender in politics since the ’90s, said the current approach tends to involve adding more ministers for women, as the prime minister did earlier this week with his cabinet reshuffle.

The suggestion, she said, is that women are somehow responsible — “It’s still how can we fix up women rather than fix the system,” she said.

She offered up an intriguing alternative.

“Why don’t we have a minister for men behaving better? Why don’t we shift the lens?”

Another suggestion that she said might sound radical but isn’t: Quotas for men. Instead of saying parties need to have 40 or 50 percent women, why not put a limit on how many men can be selected by the parties as candidates?

“We’ve gotten so used to looking at women’s absences rather than men’s privileges and access,” she said. “The first thing we need to do is get men to stop behaving so badly that when women get in there, they just want to flee.”

My article about the chauvinist culture of Australian politics will be out in the next few days.

In the meantime, here are our stories of the week.


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