Media Centre - Opinion Piece - 1 April 2021

Parliament House Canberra: Toxic culture must end now


Girls in Australia should be growing up believing anything is possible, not being forced to choose between their leadership aspirations or their own safety working in parliament.

But, sadly, after a spate of reports of sexual misconduct in our national parliament, women are increasingly disinterested in pursuing political careers.

In 2017 Plan International Australia, the charity for girl’s equality that I led undertook a major research project called She can lead.

It found 56 per cent of respondents thought female politicians were treated unfairly.

In polling we released this week of 507 young women aged 18 – 25 that figure has increased dramatically.

Now only one in 10 of the young women surveyed think the culture of Parliament House is safe for young women.

And more than 70 per cent of respondents think female politicians are treated unfairly compared to men.

And that perception of inequality applied right across the political spectrum – 77 per cent of Labor voters and 71 per cent of Coalition voters do not believe that women involved in politics today are treated equally to men.

What this shows is that rather than dealing with the toxic culture in parliament – the situation is getting worse.

This is no surprise given the litany of media stories of alleged rape, women being victim-blamed, disrespected, talked over and side-lined in our nation’s peak seat of democracy.

This matters to everyone because the economy needs women in the workforce and those women need to know workplaces are safe.

Creating a more gender-equal world is a better outcome for everyone – underpinned by laws that enshrine the rights to equality and non-discrimination.

Regardless of political party – it is a pox on all houses – even the ones that have made great strides with quotas to change their cultures.

And this matters because as this polling shockingly demonstrates political parties in Australia are not adequately engaging with young people and, in particular, young women.

Girls are looking at what is going on and it is leaving a lasting impression of the world they can expect if they pursue a political career – a world in which women are subjected to abuse, unfair treatment and the threat of sexual violence, even by their own colleagues.

Is it any surprise then that the polling revealed that only one in 10 young women surveyed from across the political spectrum said they would ever consider pursuing a career in federal politics?

Part of my own frustration comes from having worked in political life myself as a political staffer 20 years ago.

I know first hand the misogynist, toxic culture of secrecy and cover-up that exists in some parts of our nation’s parliament.

But instead of dealing with the problem, it appears to be going backward and I’ve had enough.

I wasn’t powerful then, but I have a voice now and I want the culture of sexism and misogyny to change for the incredible young people I work with, and for my daughter.

We simply can’t afford to lose half our people in the talent pool for leadership and public life.

And here is the other figure from this polling that men in parliament ought to pay attention to – 72 per cent of respondents from across the political spectrum want stronger action from men calling out sexism.

This raises the question – where are all our fathers, brothers, friends, lovers and workmates calling out the sexism they are seeing and demanding change alongside us?

Champions of change, captains of industry – we can’t hear you – girls are not hearing you and that contributes to the view that there is no support for change and that spaces are locked out.

Instead, young women have turned to people power through the Enough is Enough demonstrations and are now looking for leadership from young women who are smashing the barriers.

Women like Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame, Chanel Congos, youth influencer of the year Yasmin Poole and a large cadre of powerful female journalists, organisers, economists and feminists that have come together in a powerful intergenerational dialogue to push for change, support each other and share tactics.

Political leaders in Canberra today would do well to pay attention to the old adage that young people care less about what you say, but they are watching what you do.

It is this action and behaviour from which they take their cues.

We need to do better to clean up the culture in our nation’s parliament and we need to do it now.


This article originally appeared in the Canberra Times

Media contacts

Claire Knox

Media & PR Advisor
0452 326 549

Keep up to date