Why is sexual harassment in politics so endemic and how do I navigate it?
1 March 2021 at 6:22 pm
Neil Pharaoh considers how centralised power, isolation from reality and the creation of a political class have created an environment of harassment in politics, and impacted wider social policy.
It is a question many in Australia, not just in the social purpose sector, have asked in the past few weeks. After Brittany Higgins’ allegations of a Parliament House sexual assault, the rape allegations against a sitting Cabinet minister, and no less than four inquiries underway into the culture of sexual harassment at parliament, it is no wonder it is front of mind.
While under reported generally, in politics sexual harassment is even more so – the trifecta of centralised power, isolation from reality and an entire profession without experience outside of the political field leads to the perfect environment to breed this behaviour. This article will dive into the three topics – power, isolation and the creation of a political class – and how this impacts not just harassment, but wider social policy.
Across both major parties, and one minor party, I know of a parliamentarian nicknamed after the number of women he ogles and visually undresses; another, to this day, actively picks off any LGBTIQ+ candidates and staffers in any office because of their dirty work; and a third would always stare at my colleague’s breasts in meetings.
In all of those situations, I feel powerless to do anything about it. With the creepy senator who would eye off my female colleague, we made sure colleagues were never alone during meetings. The senator who has spent years digging dirt on LGBTIQ+ members of their party was promoted, leaving you to wonder if there is anyone you can report the actions to? And will they care if you do? For the senator whose nickname refers to his regular actions towards women, who do you report that to? The party has tried to cover it up, evidence is scant and hard to come by, and the victim is never believed.
While we get up in arms about recent issues, it was only 18 months ago we were “shocked” by another Liberal Party sexual assault – this time a female colleague was restrained and had her clothes removed. In any normal job, when reported to “management”, your actions would have consequences, in politics, the man involved became “eligible” for a potential promotion, and was being considered for preselection for the Liberal Party.
When this is backed up by senior Liberals saying “every woman that comes forward with a complaint is probably representing at least five more” you know something is broken.
In politics, it is known from the start that you will need powerbrokers and political friends if you wish to go anywhere. The reliance of factions on all three sides enables silence because you won’t report against someone who you need for preselection, you know you will be ostracised if you make a noise, and there is nobody external or at arm’s length to report anything to.
Neither Albo, Scomo or Bandt has given any one of the hundreds of current and former volunteers or staffers a process they can rely upon. This isolation of anyone who complains is a substantial part of the problem, in any normal workplace there is someone who may be able to assist.
I cringe when I see party leaders regularly making women scapegoats for mistakes, while seemingly equally culpable men are spared, let alone watching most male politicians (and their Twitter followers) respond to a female journalist – harassment is endemic in politics.
A cohort detached
The icing on the cake, making politics so challenging to overcome sexual harassment issues is that a large numbers of participants, in some offices every single person, have never had a job outside of politics. There is no comparison to other workplaces where threats do not exist, and where actions have consequences, if you have spent years in the political eco-system where even the worse sexual harassment becomes normalised behaviour. When reporting a sexual harassment issue, the usual line has been, even by senior politicians: “I’d advise against reporting this, because I have seen how this plays out, and it doesn’t end well for you. I am sorry I can’t help”.
So why is this an issue for the social purpose space?
Put simply, we are not getting our best and brightest into politics. I know three brilliant women, all with diverse careers and backgrounds, extensive community connection and experience, and invaluable skills, insights and knowledge. They would make amazingly brilliant politicians, and between them are smart, passionate, driven, and from different political colours. All are becoming less active party members, yet have tried to run, or ran, in the past for state and federal seats. They are increasingly unlikely to get an opportunity to genuinely contest a safe seat – why? Because they have careers, insights and experience outside of politics and will not accept or tolerate bad behaviour. They are making brilliant waves in their chosen professions, yet come from outside the bubble, and haven’t spent years sucking up to the right people for long enough.
The consequences are a less informed, less diverse and less representative parliament – which leads to poorer social, economic and community outcomes. It also means our task from the social purpose side has never been more invaluable – we need to push policy outcomes for the many, and be present in numbers, and bring the big, new ideas to the table.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. Neil is co-founder and director of Tanck, which focuses on better engagement with government, and regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems.
Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.
If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.