Inside Story

Late nights, high stress and plenty of booze

Is parliament at last recognising the deep problems in its own work culture?

Judith Ireland 19 February 2021 1154 words

Former Liberal MP Fiona Scott points to a “persistent upstairs/downstairs class system” in parliament. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Despite the cynical, seen-it-all-before standards of Parliament House, Brittany Higgins’s story has stunned the building’s inhabitants this week. The former media adviser to then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds alleges she was raped by a senior colleague on a couch in Reynolds’s ministerial suite early one Saturday morning in March 2019.

Sydney MP Jason Falinski echoed many within the Liberal party room when he tweeted: “Assault of any sort, but sexual assault in particular is just unbelievable. Ms Higgins is incredible [sic] brave for speaking out and we should all respect that.” As another government MP noted midweek, “it has genuinely shocked people.”

Unsurprisingly, it has also shaken people outside the building. Some MPs are reporting a similar level of community correspondence and outrage to early 2018, when Barnaby Joyce’s affair with staffer Vikki Campion was made public.

Of course, the alleged perpetrator, not the government or the building, is responsible here. But you can’t blame voters for thinking Parliament House is a terrible place to work.

Higgins’s story, and her claim she was not adequately supported by her bosses, has produced a confusing flurry of reviews into working conditions and political staffing in Parliament House. Coalition MPs say there is a genuine desire to make the place safer for women and make sure no one else has a similar experience. But the government also needs to be seen to be doing something and doing something fast. So far, it’s unclear how the reviews will be coordinated and turned into something real.

Doubtless, there is also a reasonable expectation within Liberal ranks that any parliament-wide investigation will turn the spotlight on other parties as well.

As the details of who knew exactly what and when are thrashed out, one of the major disappointments (in a week of many) has been Reynolds’s performance. We know it took Reynolds several days to talk to Higgins after her acting chief of staff, Fiona Brown, learned of the alleged rape. And we know the meeting happened in front of the very couch where Higgins says the assault happened. (Reynolds says she was not aware of this at the time.)

Reynolds’s parliamentary apology to Higgins on Tuesday also raised eyebrows because it came in response to a question from Labor during question time, not as a statement on her own initiative. In the procedure-driven world of the Senate, this speaks volumes. Her tears in the Senate on Thursday, on the other hand, highlighted the emotional impact of this week’s revelations.

Reynolds’s missteps are also seen against her background as one of the Liberals’ most prominent advocates for women in politics. As a backbencher, she was arguably best known for pushing the party’s federal executive to adopt gender-equality targets. Whenever the issue was about “women in the Coalition,” Reynolds was at the top of journalists’ lists to call for comment.

Even since her appointment to the ministry in 2018, and amid the distractions of the defence portfolio since 2019, Reynolds still promoted her work with women. Her website carries a whole section titled “empowering women.” “Senator Reynolds is a passionate champion for gender equality and female empowerment in politics and in society more generally,” it begins. “Senator Reynolds continues to work hard to effect genuine organisational change within the Liberal Party.”

And while much is made of Reynolds’s pre-parliament military career, a significant chunk of her CV is taken up by political staffing roles. She was former customs minister Chris Ellison’s chief of staff in the early 2000s and, before that, an electorate officer for former Western Australian MPs Fred Chaney and Judi Moylan. She knows what it’s like to be a female Liberal staffer, even a relatively junior one.

Some Coalition colleagues this week put Reynolds’s bungled response (to an admittedly difficult situation) down to her relative inexperience as a minister. There were dark mutterings about how she was elevated too quickly to cabinet to make the party look more female-friendly ahead of the 2019 election.

In all this, though, she was being advised by a political operative of considerable standing and experience in the party. Fiona Brown was a long-time adviser to Arthur Sinodinos before working for Reynolds, via the prime minister’s office.

Other Liberal members said any discussion of Higgins’s story needs to concentrate on the broader workplace culture — an observation that comes off the back of increasing concern about the safety of women and the treatment of political staff at parliament. Beyond Four Corners’s recent investigation into allegations of harassment and bullying by ministers, ANU political scientist Maria Maley has been researching the experience of political staffers at state and federal levels.

Maley has interviewed former staffers who describe examples of sexual harassment and bullying by other staffers and their bosses. She notes that their job security is also extremely precarious. According to their terms of employment, they can be sacked at any time if the MP or senator loses “trust or confidence” in them.

It’s also a job that involves late nights, high stress and plenty of booze. While this is the case in many industries, parliament is a bit different because so many people fly into Canberra for sitting weeks, and fly out again straight after. If not a bubble, it certainly leads to a “what happens on tour, stays on tour” atmosphere for those who participate enthusiastically in the many functions, dinners and drinks that crowd sitting-week evenings.

Former Liberal MP Fiona Scott also points to a “persistent upstairs/downstairs class system” in parliament, which involves everyone who works in the building. “This creates a power imbalance between MPs and all employees at Parliament House,” she told me this week. “And that’s just not in line with wider Australian workplaces.”

Australia may see itself as egalitarian, but inside parliament, MPs are treated as somewhere between gods and celebrities — with separate entrances, separate security processes and separate dining areas. They are chauffeured around in Comcars and brought glasses of water by attendants, and can have lifts especially vacated for them. They are called not by their names but by titles like Mr Speaker, Minister and Senator. Even colloquially, they are known as “the boss.” This special status can also trickle down to their senior staff.

It is not hard to imagine Higgins feeling her allegiance should be to her boss and the political optics ahead of an imminent election, rather than to her own personal situation. It’s also not hard to see how she felt she had little choice about what to do, even if she was told she would be supported to go to the police.

When the #MeToo movement hit the entertainment and media industries several years ago, many within federal parliament wondered when it would reach politics. Given the response among politicians, staff and the public, they don’t need to wonder any more. •