OPINION

Parliament's male-dominated culture has let men off the hook for too long

These stories are not just about the women who dare speak out. They are about the men who fail to do the same. Picture: Shutterstock
These stories are not just about the women who dare speak out. They are about the men who fail to do the same. Picture: Shutterstock

Is this a sex scandal? Or a scandal about sexist culture?

Monday's Four Corners story is about many things. For the details you'll have to watch the story, as I won't discuss them here. But let's first be clear about what this story is not about.

This is not a story about fallout between consenting adults. It is a story about power and hypocrisy. About truth and integrity. And it's about values.

It's also about how seemingly untouchable men wax lyrical about the sacredness of family values and "the sanctity of marriage". It's about how some men anointed with the privilege of political power - on top of all the other privileges they may be gifted by birth or circumstance - can treat constituents like daft fools.

We are not. We see you.

We see the breathtaking hypocrisy with which some male politicians, so accustomed to the trappings of power and authority, assume both innocence and ignorance. They claim to not know that seducing women who trust them, work for them, are subordinate to them, who look up to them, who may even love them, or at least swoon over them, is in fact dangerous and abusive. Any relationship between boss and devotee that ends in the woman's demotion or workplace disappearance is the result of misogynist manipulation.

Federal politics can be intoxicating for all players, young and old, journos or politicos. Being "on the hill" feels powerful, and during sitting periods the House is flushed with adrenalin. It has a heartbeat all of its own. It also has a culture deeply entrenched in a masculinised history driven by male power. It is a culture that hasn't yet worked out how to welcome, much less embrace and support, women. Consequently, it is a culture in which ambitious young women, who are desperate to flourish in this exciting and intellectually challenging environment, very easily fall prey to age-old misogyny and brutal treatment.

Politics in Federal Parliament is dirty. Sometimes filthy. But it is the stubborn gender inequality and lack of women in positions of real power that remains a festering wound in our democratic system.

Is it any wonder Canberra is home to some bitter women who have learnt to distrust, even despise the men they once served? Yes. Served. Because that is how it is in power relationships. Smart, incredibly hard-working, dedicated and loyal women, flattered by crumbs of attention from the men they admire, quickly give their heart and soul to the job.

Not all power relationships in Parliament turn out this way of course. Some bloom into love, babies and new lives. Which is lovely for them. Not so lovely for those women who are left to watch their philandering husbands not only survive the political fallout, but prosper despite it, as the nation's untouchable, powerful men breathe a mates' sigh of relief.

What a filthy mess our men of power weave when they think they are above honesty. How foolish are the women who try and clean up behind them. And how decent and brave are the women who speak out on television against them. Their careers and reputations forever sullied.

But these stories are not just about the women who dare speak out. They are about the men who fail to do the same. The men who display a confused morality when they too have skin in the game. When politics overrides everything else, including decency and consistency.

There is no doubt the entrenched sexism that pervades Parliament House has deep roots. Allegations of sexual scandal, or inappropriate "kissing and cuddling" while drunk, are certainly not new. What is new is joining the dots to help clarify the culture.

When we map the repetition of incidents over many years that involve young, subordinate women and their male bosses, is it any wonder that in 2018 then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced a "bonking ban" - a government edict (which Labor supported) that forbids ministers, whether married or single, from having sexual relations with their staff? Although aimed at men behaving badly, the effect of the ban might have been to stigmatise young female staffers as the seductive source of a minister's downfall.

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While the world-first ban was met with mirth by many of my male media colleagues, you could almost hear the weary sigh from women commentators. The Sydney Morning Herald's Jacqueline Maley wrote at the time: "Women pay the consequences for men's failure and weaknesses far more often than the reverse is true."

As if to underscore the culpability of women when it comes to a male MP's downfall, less than a fortnight after the new "bonking ban", the Minister for Jobs, Senator Michaelia Cash, told a Senate committee: "I am happy to sit here and name every young woman in Mr Shorten's office over which rumours in this place abound."

At the time Senator Cash was widely castigated for her comments, and was later forced to withdraw them. But what was most shocking to me was the reaction, or indeed inaction, of other women MPs, on both sides of the house. Later, when I asked about this, one senior Labor MP told me: "Female staff members are used as collateral damage to attack other MPs all the time. This has happened forever. It's just not called out." She went on to say how "interesting" she found it that Senator Cash was thrashed so hard for using this well-worn political "technique".

If it wasn't obvious previously, surely it is by now. Politics in Federal Parliament is dirty. Sometimes filthy. But it is the stubborn gender inequality and lack of women in positions of real power that remains a festering wound in our democratic system.

Would senior women in politics, if present at the head table, if granted the power and authority they deserve, and if consulted about a minister's drunken, sexual cavorting with young and vulnerable women, have done nothing more than wag a finger of warning about "the risk of compromise" if caught out? I seriously doubt it.

And I suspect you do too.

  • Virginia Haussegger is chair of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra and was the 2019 ACT Australian of the Year. This article was first published on Broad Agenda.
This story Parliament's male-dominated culture has let men off the hook for too long first appeared on The Canberra Times.