Flat White

Canberra's cultural change and the Jenkins looking glass

8 December 2021

4:00 AM

8 December 2021

4:00 AM

The 2021 federal parliamentary sitting year has been plagued and book-ended by allegations of poor behaviour. It started with Brittney Higgins’ rape allegations, ended with Kate Jenkins’ ‘Set the Standard’ report, and in between, there were various other drizzles of kerosene on the fire: a new allegation, a new angle, a new low in human behaviour.

It’s been demoralising to say the least.

And it’s hard to not be emotional about it, but I keep reminding myself that we all need to be dispassionate so we can clearly articulate the issues and formulate effective solutions. No one ever said, ‘I got angry and emotional and made awesome strategic decisions!’

We need to correct without over-correcting.

The fact is sexual assault, sexual harassment, and bullying are already illegal. There is no magic wand the Prime Minister can wave which will stop it occurring in and around Parliament House. Instead, the aim should be to implement clear and effective procedures for reporting, referring, and disciplining.

This isn’t the cut and dry gender issue the activists pretend that it is. Unfortunately, it’s been weaponised due to the irresistible political convenience in couching this as a ‘Liberal Party has a problem with women’ issue. And that is a great shame, for it silences victims who do not fit the headline narrative – excludes real suffering in the name of political expedience.

While the Jenkins report found that the majority of victims of sexual assault are women, it also found that women were most likely to engage in bullying and that those who engage in this conduct likely have multiple victims. That is, despite the majority of the victims being women, the majority of men are not offenders; in fact, most men find this behaviour abhorrent.

This is too important an issue to die on this hill a hypocrite.

We need buy-in from everyone to achieve real cultural change as opposed to a political grenade or a short-term fix for electoral survival. Ultimately, this is a decency issue. A bipartisan approach for broad cultural change will result in a better overall solution.

The Jenkins report details 28 recommendations which deal directly with the present issue, but there are things that can be done to effect broader cultural change.

Send our best and brightest: We should be delivering some of our best to Canberra. By ‘best’ I mean independent thinkers; people with life experience and an eagerness to serve. Don’t expect standards to improve if politics remains the well-trodden path for pawns, hacks, and apparatchiks of either gender. And while I’m here, let’s disabuse ourselves of the idea that quotas are the simple answer to this complex issue. They are not. Tipping more women into politics achieves little more than tipping more women into politics. It’s unwise to assume that, simply by virtue of being women, women are more decent or are better suited to parliament. Senator Lidia Thorpe disproved that trope to perfection just last week. Rather, we should be encouraging talented and decent people to enter politics by improving preselection processes and the nature of the destination.

You are the company you keep: The days of Parliament House being the political Wet & Wild Waterpark for the immature, ignorant, and ambitious needs to stop. Staff, particularly advisory staff, ought to have a minimum of three to five years working in the private or not-for-profit sectors before working at Parliament House. A person has a much better grasp of community values and expectations when they haven’t lived in a political or public service bubble their entire working lives. They will be better able to develop and appreciate the impacts of policy if they have some notion of how it actually affects the community.

Further, if staffers want to run for office, there should be a clear term between them finishing as a staffer and being eligible for preselection. This requires cooperation from the lay divisions of parties, but really, they ought to appreciate that the electorate needs another careerist politician like a hole in the head.

Get rid of the booze: It is no longer acceptable for alcohol to be consumed in most workplaces. This sort of ‘nanny’ regulation goes against every personal responsibility and freedom grain in my body, but if there are already slack standards of personal behaviour, booze will only fuel the race to the bottom. So, bin it.

Bipartisanship, please: If there is bipartisan commitment on this issue, then existing allegations need to be ventilated and properly dealt with regardless which side of the political fence those allegations relate to. In fact, I propose a Section 44-style flush; put it all on the table and let them fall where they stand. Anything less is partisan gamesmanship frocked up as caring about women.

It would be an undeniably positive move, but I won’t hold my breath.

Change from the top: Cultural change almost invariably occurs from the top down. We all know this and we are all wasting our time unless there is real leadership. If our leaders are interested in treating this as a party issue rather than a parliamentary issue, then we might as well just resign ourselves to accepting that Parliament House is a cesspit of poor behaviour.

Decency not gender: We need to encourage a higher standard of behaviour across the board. We don’t need a ‘vagina hat’ day; we need a ‘don’t be a dickhead’ day. When you remove gender from a human issue, it leaves no one with a place to hide. If everyone is accountable, then cultural change can occur. This isn’t just a problem for the blokes to fix; displays of male self-flagellation change nothing.

Women also need to acknowledge their own poor behaviour and vow to, equally, be part of the solution. If women engage in this behaviour, walk past it, don’t call it out, or try to justify it to suit a political agenda – then they are just as bad as any male perpetrator.

While if feels as though we have already trudged through the mire on this, I’m acutely aware that we are only at the beginning of the journey. But, if we don’t articulate the issues properly and have genuine bipartisan leadership, then it’s an opportunity lost. Poor culture will continue to pervade and genuinely competent political aspirants and staffers will self-select out.

And at the end of it all, the country will be poorer for it.

Writer’s note: In the beginning, I wrote for The Spectator Australia. But within a short period of time, I wrote for Christian Kerr. This article was substantially completed in April/May 2021, but I told Christian that I wanted to wait until the Jenkins report was handed down to finalise and publish it. Sadly, I won’t have the benefit of Christian’s feedback but I hope, from wherever he is perched, likely wrapped in a Hermes silk robe, that he is satisfied with it. I trust there is at least one turn of phrase which would’ve drawn a wry smile or perhaps that unmistakable baritone roar of laughter. Regardless, I want to thank him for all his encouragement: I wouldn’t be the writer I am without his care and generosity. Goodbye, my friend.

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