Australian Politics Is A Toxic Boys Club

The ‘boys club’ that is Canberra fosters an environment that normalises sexism, leading to multiple rape and sexual assault allegations.

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Two weeks ago, former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins came forward with allegations of rape against a senior Liberal staffer. Since then, a further two women have come forward with allegations against the same man.

Other allegations have also come forward, including one against a Labor MP and a historical case.

Last year, Attorney-General Christian Porter was the focus of a Four Corners episode that documented sexism and sexual misconduct in the ‘Canberra Bubble’. As revealed by Four Corners, Christian Porter was known for behaving inappropriately towards women during his university days.

For many political hopefuls, their entry into politics begins during their time at university. However, Young Labor and Young Liberal clubs have both been struck by scandals involving bullying and gendered discrimination against female politicians — and these are our future politicians.

As Australian politics experiences its own #MeToo moment, it is crucial that we reflect on the treatment of female politicians across the political spectrum — not just at a state or federal level. Decades of sexism and misogyny has led to the normalisation of sexism within our politics. Female leaders are bullied, ignored, and regularly passed over for leadership positions.

The ‘boys club’ that is Canberra fosters an environment that normalises sexism, leading to multiple rape and sexual assault allegations.

For many of today’s MPs, their political careers began in university. The trajectory for many political hopefuls begins with joining a political party at university, becoming a staffer, and eventually running for a seat.

Multiple scandals have circulated student political parties.

The University of Melbourne Liberal Club has excluded women from attending events, and in 2014 leaked Facebook posts revealed members calling women “sluts”, Muslims “degenerates”, and stating that all feminists are ugly.

Political party leaders should take greater responsibility for the actions of those in their youth divisions to help stamp out gendered discrimination in parliament.

On the left, 2019 Young Labor members in Canberra were accused of bullying after referring to a female member as a “rat”, stating that they were going to “bully the fuck out of her” in a group chat. Nick Douros, one of the men in the group chat, is now the National Secretary of Young Labor.

Decades of unchecked sexist behaviour and sexual assault allegations of politicians and political hopefuls normalises sexism in Australian parliaments.
Political party leaders should take greater responsibility for the actions of those in their youth divisions to help stamp out gendered discrimination in parliament.

By sweeping cases of sexism aside at youth party levels, Australian political parties are normalising sexism at the beginning of political careers. Once male politicians enter politics, this behaviour becomes the norm. For women, they have been accustomed to it since their university and staffer days.

Toxic Political Cultures

These rape allegations and sexual assault cases are not isolated events. It is an every day reality for women in workplaces all around the country. Our elected representatives are meant to represent Australia.

An ABC report that same year on the Greens “uncovered multiple claims by women that the party mismanaged their complained about sexual misconduct and harassment”. With one of the allegations of sexual misconduct against then-NSW MLC Jeremy Buckingham. The party was accused of putting its reputation above the welfare of its staffers.

In 2018, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young spoke out about ‘slut-shaming’ within parliament, in response to Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm telling her to “fuck off” and “stop shagging men”.

In response to Barnaby Joyce’s affair with his former media advisor Vikki Campion, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull banned ministers from having sex with political staffers. Known as the ‘bonk ban’, Turnbull was attempting to out an end to sexual relations in Parliament that are built on abuse of power by ministers.

However, a ‘bonk ban’ will never fix sexism. A ‘bonk ban’ does not put an end to ,a culture that normalises misogyny. Turnbull’s ‘bonk ban’ stopped the problem only once it had occurred — it never did enough to tackle the systemic issues within Australian politics.

Silencing Women

If a picture tells a thousand words, then images of politicians turning their backs in the house when women are talking demonstrates the treatment of women in politics.

Women are ignored, bullied, and harassed in Australian politics. The behaviour that existed towards Julia Gillard, inside and outside the parliament, is a very recognisable example of the treatment of women in politics. When it comes to women in leadership positions, women are not welcome.

In 2018, Liberal MP Julia Banks left the party because of the “scourge of cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation”. Stating that “women have suffered in silence for too long”. Fellow liberals, former Deputy Leader Julie Bishop and former Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer supported the allegations.
Australian women are increasingly passed over for key leadership roles. In 2018, Julie Bishop was a front-runner during Malcolm Turnbull’s spill; Tanya Plibersek had gained support from both Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten for her 2019 campaign to be leader of the Australian Labor Party. Both Bishop and Plibersek had more popular support for leadership than their male counterparts, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese. And yet both were passed over.

Whilst we cannot know what happens behind party doors, political parties struggle to put women in leadership positions, there is a question around whether men with similar qualifications would have missed out in the same way.

The treatment of women by their colleagues, the Australian media and the broader population is no doubt in the back of the minds of every female politician and political hopeful. And every woman in society.

Normalising Sexism

Allegations of sexual assault and gendered discrimination are examples of a political environment that silences women and normalises sexism. Politicians are not adequately reprimanded when allegations surface. Instead, women simply exit politics, and all Australians are worse off for it.

For many women, the sexism and bullying is too much. Women on all sides of politics — Julia Banks, Alex Bhathal, and Julia Gillard — have left politics whilst their male counterparts remain in political positions.

Australians who are surprised by the events of the past two weeks have not been attuned to the experiences of women around the country. Australians cannot be surprised when the ‘ditch the witch’ campaign led by Tony Abbott becomes very real allegations of rape and sexual assault in parliament.

Whilst Parliament may appear to be on the brink of a reckoning, it is time for Australians to reassess how we treat our female politicians and how male politicians treat their co-workers.

Australian political culture aims to stamp out female voices. This has created an environment which has normalised sexism within our Parliaments. It is time it changed. 

Kate Clayton is an international relations and politics academic from Naarm. You can find her on twitter @kateclaytn