Parliament is built on male privilege. That must change

It’s a great privilege to be elected to Parliament and to create laws that shape society and guide workplaces across Australia. However, some male parliamentarians see it differently. For them male privilege means that decent standards of behaviour don’t apply to them. 

They are exceptional, they expect to get away with it and usually do.

Federal parliament was rocked by Samantha Maiden breaking the shocking story on of a young staffer allegedly raped by a senior colleague in a minister’s office in Parliament House after hours, yet there’s no indication that anything will change.

This is only a few months after the 4 Corners expose of the toxic and sexist culture within Parliament House revealed that Alan Tudge bullied and marginalised a media adviser he had an affair with, and Attorney General Christian Porter appears to be a career misogynist.

Coupled with the over representation of middle-aged white men in the ranks of our parliamentarians, and the under-representation of literally every other demographic, Australia has a serious problem with its parliament, and has had for decades.

It’s not surprising. The Westminster system of government was built by men for men, and was staffed almost exclusively by men for centuries.

Parliament is an institution that women have had to fight to participate in, and be represented by.

Parliament is an institution that women have had to fight to participate in, and be represented by.

photo Vida Goldstein

In the Conversation the results of a study of the male domination of politics and construction have revealed common traits that serve to entrench male privilege and keep women from participating as equals in:

  1. A culture of denial

In politics, the culture of denial often takes the form of “turning a blind eye”. In many cases of sexual assault, including this latest matter relating to Ms Higgins, senior staff have been made aware of complaints of sexual harassment and abuse, but none responded appropriately.

2. Perceptions that rules are neutral and applied objectively

There is a narrative that rules and procedures are gender-neutral and applied objectively. The fact there are no codified rules or sanctions in parliament to address sexual harassment and assault is just one example of how this plays out.

Parliament is geared around men’s expectations and the view that their experiences are universal.

3. Backlash and resistance to keep the gender status quo in place (Exemplified in the Liberal Party’s hostility toward gender quotas. Their insistence on selection on “merit” extends from the parliamentary organisation to the grassroots membership of the party.)

There’s no shortage of examples of the backlash to the growing presence of women in Australian politics.

Photo by Josh Withers on Unsplash

How can this change?

For starters, parliament needs institutional change; no more tinkering around the edges with internal reviews of questionable independence whose recommendations are never implemented.

“The first step would be the introduction of an independent reporting system for all parliamentary members and staff – one that protects the anonymity of the person reporting a complaint and is enforceable with sanctions.” 

If Scott Morrison, a 14 year veteran of parliament, wanted to implement meaningful change now, there are a number of resources from overseas that he could use, starting with the Interparliamentary Union’s guidelines on eliminating sexism and gender based abuse from parliaments.  

After these latest revelations, the country is watching.

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