Harrowing stories lay bare the toxic workplace culture of Parliament House

A sweeping review into parliament’s workplace culture has uncovered horrific stories of sexual harassment, bullying, sexual assault and gender inequality.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Source: AAP

This article contains references to sexual assault.

Damning anonymous accounts have laid bare a culture of rampant sexual harassment and bullying inside Parliament House.

Almost 500 people were interviewed as part of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins' report titled Set the Standard to investigate the culture of parliamentary workplaces.

Men looking women up in down in corridors, women carrying fake binders to block unwanted advances, incidents of forcible touching and comments on appearance were among the findings of the report.

The testimony to the inquiry paints a harrowing picture of the power imbalances, gender inequality, lack of accountability, entitlement and exclusion that have underpinned a toxic culture. 

The below extracts are separate anonymous quotes taken from various submissions to the inquiry.

‘A man’s world’

One anonymous account described Parliament House as the “most sexist place” they had worked, where young women were treated like “fresh meat and challenges”.

Another said the building was a “man’s world” saying they were reminded of it “every day thanks to the looks up and down you get”.

They also pointed to the “representation in the parliamentary chambers [and] to the preferential treatment politicians give senior male journalists” as evidence of this gender disparity.

The report found one in three (33 per cent) parliamentary staffers had experienced some form of sexual harassment while working there.

One account spoke about “aspiring male politicians” who thought “nothing of, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom [and] comments about appearance”.

Another described how a male MP sitting beside them had leaned over before they “grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating.”

Others described how they were also subjected to unwanted sexual advances.

One person said a male colleague “kissed” them on the neck in the lift, while another said they were "indecently assaulted by a male senior staffer in a senior office”.

A further account described how at "after work drinks [a senior party member] put his hand up my skirt".

Another person described they have "female colleagues who take fake binders … to committee meetings so a male MP won’t try to kiss them”.

‘A culture all about power’

Other participants in the inquiry also raised concerns about the lack of accountability for misbehaviour, as well as the perpetuation of an unhealthy working culture.

One person described working in parliament as: "a culture which is all about power" stating that this "doesn’t mean it has to be a culture which is about abuse of power.”

Another said: “there are no ramifications for bad behaviour because there is no risk of MPs getting fired, or otherwise being held accountable for their actions.”

A further account said: "When the work is that fast pace ... you lose perspective on what is appropriate, what your rights and the way in which you deserve to be treated.”

Some participants also described a culture in which individuals responsible for misconduct are an “open secret” that “everyone knows” about, but nothing is done to address them.

'Cry in the toilet'

The long and irregular hours of work were also identified as a factor that can "exacerbate the aggressiveness" in the workplace.

One participant said: “frequently, like at least every week, the advice was go and cry in the toilet so that nobody can see you, because that’s what it’s like up here.”

Others described how a "work hard, play hard" culture combined with travel away from home and family supports, particularly during sitting weeks to fostered environments in which bullying is accepted.

Participants also said that hindsight and distance enabled them to see that Parliament House did not meet the modern standards of Australian workplaces.

“I thought it was normal to tell people that they should avoid certain people at events,” one person said.

"I thought it was normal to tell people how to take alcohol to remain safe. Now that I look back on it, that is insane.”

Another person who addressed the power imbalance said this "is just so blatant, it’s impossible to provide a safe working environment for staff”.

Women's sex used as a weapon against her

Participants also drew attention to gender segregation in the workplace, including people “being given tasks on a gendered basis”.

Another said: “I haven’t seen men overtly using a woman’s sex as a weapon against her in the workplace or using power to keep women in their place until I worked at [Parliament House]."

Others also raised concerns about the alcohol-fuelled culture that has perpetuated in the building.

“Every function, every event, alcohol consumption is basically unlimited, unmonitored, and encouraged, often provided for free,” one person said.

Some participants also told the commission that their identity as a First Nations person, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) person, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) person or person with a disability, meant that they were excluded or seen only through the lens of their identity.

“We urgently need more young people, more women, more people of colour in that place,” one person said.

The report detailed 28 recommendations aimed at addressing

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit . In an emergency, call 000.

5 min read
Published 1 December 2021 at 3:11pm
By Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News