‘The safest job’? Parliament, Australian Women Say

SYDNEY, Australia – When Julia Banks arrived in parliament five years ago after a successful legal and business career, she felt like she had stepped into the 80s. Alcohol flowed freely. Occasionally she felt it in the breath of the male deputies when they voted.

Many men in Australian politics also did not think of belittling women, she said, or spreading sexual rumors. More than a few treated younger employees love toys. Once, Ms. Banks said, a fellow MP introduced a new intern, slowly rubbing his hand up and down the young woman’s back.

“I saw her visibly twitch,” Ms. Banks said. “She and I locked our eyes and I’m sure my nonverbal sign was“ don’t say anything, please, don’t say anything, I’ll lose my job. “

“It’s the safest job in the country,” she added.

Australian #MeToo moment it arrived, late but powerful, like a tsunami aimed at the political foundations of the country. Six weeks after a former lawmaker, Brittany Higgins, accused a senior colleague of raping her in the defense minister’s office, thousands of women stand up to share their stories, march for justice and demand change.

The Conservative coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now facing a historic reaction, which has begun to reduce his voter numbers as it faces one scandal after another.

Although the problem of misogyny is widespread, the focal point has become politics – an area that more and more women describe as Australia’s sexiest hole, where many men have long assumed they can act like kings. Women from each party say they have been belittled for years while trying to do their job. They were touched and insulted, ignored and interrupted – and whenever they questioned such behavior, they faced a series of attacks.

“There is so much accumulated anger and hurt,” said Tanya Plibersek, leader of the Labor Party, which is the opposition women’s minister. “Once people start telling their stories, it’s hard to stop.”

In many ways, the Australian political class is playing catch-up. Corporations in the country and other institutions have gradually moved towards gender equality, but male privilege still resonates through the halls of power. The causes are both common (refusal to relinquish power) and parochial (not realizing that Australian culture can be sexist).

“They just won’t see it,” said Louise Chappell, a political scientist at the University of New South Wales who has been studying gender and Australian politics since the 1990s. “And they won’t see it in a structural sense.”

Many women said they faced chauvinism as soon as they entered politics.

Shortly after the Labor Party asked Kate Ellis to be an ally a 2004 election candidate, she said, she heard her own campaign team discuss photos for her poster. “No, it looks like a bimbo in that,” she recalled hearing someone say.

“You would have moments like that every day,” she said.

Ms. Banks, who left Parliament in 2019, is still there today completing the book about bias, she said she encountered a quiet hum of disrespect from one of her first fundraisers, where she discovered she was not on the speaker list. They were all men.

There must be some mistake, she told the responsible official of the Liberal Party.

” Don’t worry about it, darling, ‘she recalled answering,’ we’ll give you a raffle at the end. ‘

Parliament proved even worse. “Swearing, talking about women, inappropriate jokes, inappropriate touching – it was all there,” Ms. Banks said.

In interviews, many current and former MPs described the House of Representatives as a testosterone bunker. Its hallways are wide, the offices have thick walls, and each minister’s suite includes a fully equipped kitchen and a couch large enough to sleep. Most refrigerators are stocked with beer and wine.

Most members of parliament are men, as are most staff. In the last 20 years, Australia has fallen from 15th to 50th in the world for parliamentary gender diversity. The parliamentary delegations of the conservative Liberal and National Parties, which rule with a small majority, make up more than 80 percent of men.

Contributing to the vibration of fraternity, Canberra is part-time capital. Votes are often called after 6 p.m., and families are left behind in local districts because the legislature sits for only 20 weeks a year. When he’s busy, Parliament is often compared to a gentlemen’s club, although to some it’s more Peter Pan in a pub.

Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator for the Green Party, said male rivals would often shout at town halls the names of the men she was falsely accused of.

“It was like a game these guys played with only the most intense contempt,” she told Ms. Ellis for the book “Sex, Lies, and Question Time.”

Ms. Hanson-Young sued Senate colleague David Leyonhjelm for defamation after he yelled at her on the floor of a villa in 2018, “stop fucking men”. She recently won a $ 120,000 verdict against him, but along the way he suffered death threats.

Many have said bad behavior is squeezing from the top.

“It’s a permit ecosystem where men behave badly and their young staff see them pulling themselves out,” said Emma Husar, a former member of parliament from Sydney.

Although alcohol is not the primary cause in Parliament, she added, it contributes.

“There are a lot of blurred boundaries,” she said. “From about 5 o’clock on the left is a copious amount of booze.”

At the daily function without alcohol in 2017, she said, she was touched by a member of the Liberal Party. When she went to the leaders of the Labor Party, she told her that they had told her not to say anything. Her political career ended after a Buzzfeed article claimed she harassed staff members and once crossed her legs to show she was not wearing underwear in front of a male colleague.

She and the man denied it had ever happened. When Ms. Husar sued for defamation, Buzzfeed apologized and removed the article. But the story went viral as well Ms. Husar said the party forced her to step down and no longer run in 2019.

Ms. Ellis called the story of Ms. Husar “armed gossip.” She said she had almost failed when a reporter almost wrote about the lie she was circulating, that she and her chief of staff had slept with the same man.

The women said their bosses ’message was always clear: secrets are for insiders and don’t bother to find the truth.

“There’s that kind of ‘know, don’t talk’ policy,” said Professor Chappell of the University of New South Wales. “The balloon analogy works – everyone who kept it there were secrets.”

Initially, Ms. Higgins, a woman whose allegations of rape shook the country, agreed to remain silent.

On the night of March 22, 2019, she said, she was drinking with friends in Canberra and accepted a ride with an older male colleague who, instead of taking her home, took a taxi to the House of Parliament. There, she said, she woke up “in the middle of a rape” and told the man to stop.

She said she quickly reported the attack, notifying Linda Reynolds, the Secretary of Defense, and more than a dozen others. Ms. Higgins, then 24, followed the charges against the police, but said she dropped them due to pressure from Liberal Party leaders. She said she made herself feel like she had to choose: her job or justice.

It all remained private until last month, when – after seeing the prime minister standing on the podium with Australian of the year Grace Tame, a survivor of sexual assault – she decided to speak out.

“In my opinion, his government was complicit in my silence,” she said. “It was a betrayal.”

Ms. Higgins returned to police to open an investigation. Since then, several other women have appeared in the media with charges against the same man. (He was fired after the alleged attack on Ms. Higgins, but has not been publicly identified.)

Women’s collective lawsuits broke the deadlock. Women in parliament and other people who have recently left have called for accountability. Tens of thousands of women marched across Australia on March 4 seeking justice, inspired by Ms. Higgins and enraged by the accusations against Christian Porter, the then Attorney General.

Just a day earlier, as news surfaced of an unidentified government minister accused of sexual assault, Mr. Porter had named himself a suspect. He publicly denied the allegations – made by a woman who said he raped her when they were teenagers – and refused to resign.

Mr Morrison, a career politician, only recently seems to understand the scale of misogyny in Parliament. Nearly three weeks after the protest, he admitted that “many Australians, especially women, believe I haven’t heard them and that it upsets me greatly.”

“We have to fix up the house,” he said.

Meanwhile, bad behavior from the recent past continues to surface. Last month, night news channels ran their programs with pixelated videos and photos of male Liberal Party staff in parliament masturbating on tables Minister. One of them was fired.

The Liberal MP has been accused of harassing two female voters. He agreed not to run again and apologized, but Mr Morrison found himself under fire from critics for not forcing him to resign.

Many women are also furious at the prime minister for protecting Mr. Porter, whom he recently transferred from the role of attorney general to a new position in government.

And more and more women are resisting returning to work as usual.

Last week, Dr. Anne Webster, a new member of parliament from the conservative National Party, said the male MP sexually harassed her. Such things could once have been ignored, but she filed a formal complaint with the party leadership, forcing the man to apologize.

“That’s what Australians expect from us now,” she said.

“Inch in inch, culture is changing,” she added. “We all learn; we are all adapting to the new platform. “

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