Parliament’s toxic male culture

Several missteps over his approach to sexual harassment allegations have put the Prime Minister squarely in the sights of a lot of very angry women.

ANU’s online dictionary of Australian words has a term from the unfashionable 1970s that has a place in the 21st century: Ocker (n): an Australian male who is uncouth, uncultivated or aggressively boorish in speech and manner.

Ockerism is alive, well and kicking with gusto in our nation’s capital, notably in parliament’s question time every sitting afternoon. Onlookers, instead of hearing smart questions and pertinent responses, are confronted by grown-ups shouting crude insults across the room.

Some describe this strange ritual as “robust”. Better descriptors would be vulgar, puerile and demeaning. It affects all who participate, including women. It changes mindsets and behaviours in ways that can be hard to shake off. Outside the chamber, MPs are often caught out using offensive language, like “lying cow” or much worse.

Aggressive posturing in parliament is just one manifestation of male domination of our public institutions. Its hallmark is a mindset that seeks to keep “hard” issues – the state of the economy, business profitability, national security, industrial development, law and order and such like – front and centre in the national debate.

By extension, this mindset diminishes concerns that some leaders see as “soft”. Things like the state of nature, biodiversity and the climate, our families, how we raise our children and treat disadvantaged people, and controlling and aggressive behaviour in the workplace.

It is beyond question that gender balance in public life, and especially at higher levels of business and government, serves to tone down ockerism and make us more cognisant of others’ feelings. If we can achieve that in parliament, other things become possible. 

The first thing that must change is the total control that Australian MPs, both federal and state, have over hiring and firing parliamentary office staff. If you want to keep your job in their office you learn to tolerate their behavior, and the pecking order determines that supervising underlings may follow an errant boss’s lead.

Persistent reports of sexual misconduct in politicians’ offices should have warned anyone with an ear to the ground that this might include something much more serious, even criminal misbehaviour. Some fully understood how bad things were, but those with the power to stop it just didn’t want to know.

Codes of conduct for both politicians and their staff exist across multiple Australian jurisdictions, but they are essentially outward-looking, focused on potential abuse of public responsibilities. There seems to be no such code to protect victims of internal misbehaviour.

So while most employees experiencing workplace harassment – public servants, business workers and many others – have access to human resources advice and procedures that protect their rights, those hired directly by politicians do not. They are completely at the mercy of employers who expect full compliance with their wishes, no matter how questionable.

These draconian employment conditions derive from the nature of politics. All regimes, democratic or not, want to keep the power they have, demanding total loyalty. The Morrison government is no different. It has always blocked moves to have any sort of watchdog looking over its shoulder.

Attorney-general Christian Porter was accused last year of misbehaviour in Canberra, but the allegation that as a teenager he raped a younger girl is something much darker. We can only guess why he opposes that being investigated, but it’s very clear why the prime minister does. It has nothing to do with the rule of law and everything to do with holding on to power. 

Rosalind Dixon, a legal academic who leads the Gilbert-Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of NSW, explored this last week on ABC Radio’s The Minefield. Dixon argues that civic confidence both in the law and in our system of government, bearing in mind that Porter is the country’s chief law officer, demand an inquiry into that case.

Scott Morrison’s refusal to act is consistent with his grossly inadequate response to other harassment and assault allegations. He may have resisted appointing human rights commissioner Sue Jenkins to investigate Parliament House culture, but it turns out to be his best move in this whole sorry saga. If anyone can face down Canberra ockerism, it’s Jenkins. 

In less than two years, nature in the form of drought, fire and contagion has dramatically changed our country. We are now witnessing the birth of another big shift, this time coming from within human society, as women rise in anger against their treatment by men in power. 

Their bus is pulling out, and if the PM can’t find it in himself to get aboard he will likely find himself under its wheels.

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