Why so many parliaments remain toxic workplaces

OPINION:

One resigned after being accused of raping a sex worker. Another is reportedly being investigated on suspicion of having sex with a 17-year-old. A third has been demoted after being accused of raping a 16-year-old in the 1980s.

So goes the news of the past two weeks about three politicians in three legislatures in two countries, the US and Australia. Even by modern political standards, it has been a hectic time for sexual misconduct allegations.

Coincidentally, I once worked in the same places as all these men. So I find myself asking, yet again, what it is about the world’s parliaments that make them seem so toxic — and why are they taking so long to change?

I was a very junior reporter in the early 1980s when I was sent to cover the New South Wales parliament in Sydney, which until last week contained an MP named Michael Johnsen. He quit after reports that he had offered a prostitute $1,000 to have sex in his Parliament House office and sent her lustful texts during Question Time. Party bosses, already dealing with allegations Johnsen had sexually assaulted the woman, said his time was up. His alleged behaviour in parliament, as one leader put it, “would not pass the pub test”.

Was anything like that happening when I was there? Very possibly, though I can say with confidence there was no sexting back then, on account of it being more than 20 years before the first iPhone went on sale.

It was the same at the national parliament in Canberra, where I spent the last years of my twenties. Political journalism teaches much about human behaviour but what has happened over the past eight weeks in Canberra has been jolting. Christian Porter has been moved from his post as attorney-general after being accused of raping a woman more than 30 years ago.

A former ministerial staffer has said she “woke up mid-rape” in parliament house two years ago after going there at night with a senior male colleague. Four other women said the same colleague assaulted them, and images emerged of another government aide masturbating on a female MP’s desk.

Canberra is for once making bigger waves than Washington DC, where Florida congressman Matt Gaetz has been fighting allegations he had sex with an underage woman and broke federal sex trafficking laws.

Having been a foreign correspondent in Washington in the Clinton years, this case seems more regrettable than remarkable, especially after the Trump years.

Either way, we still don’t know the outcome of the inquiries into this latest string of allegations, all of which are denied by the three men involved. If any of these politicians do end up with a case to answer though, it will not be a surprise.

For a start, workplaces do not get much more hostile than a parliament. By design, these places are full of active combatants eager to do each other in.

But parliaments also share two of the traits most closely linked with high rates of sexual harassment in other workplaces: a lot more men than women, and what researchers call an “organisational climate” that effectively tolerates harassment. In other words, a leadership that fails to protect complainants, punish culprits or take complaints seriously.

Some good has come as a result of the latest spate of allegations. In both Washington DC and Australia, there is a growing recognition that legislative bodies should address their historic lack of HR departments or the processes for dealing with misconduct that have been common in corporate life for years.

These systems are not always perfect, nor, indeed, is the complaints scheme set up in the UK parliament after a wave of sexual misconduct allegations engulfed Westminster in 2017. But they do at least exist. Even better, conservative political leaders, in Australia at least, have flagged the need for the gender quotas their parties have long resisted, in order to even up hopelessly imbalanced parliaments. It’s about time. Men make up half the global population but hold 75 per cent of seats in global parliaments on average. In Australia’s lower House, the figure is 69 per cent. In the US it’s 73 per cent. Ultimately, change won’t happen until the people who decide what behaviour is acceptable look a lot more like the people who elected them.

– Financial Times

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