A female Canberra insider who has seen — and experienced — it all speaks about the rape and sex assault culture in Federal Politics.
A female Canberra insider who has seen — and experienced — it all speaks about the rape and sex assault culture in Federal Politics.

Culture of silence: Predators inside Parliament House

OPINION

A fresh-faced staffer was in her Parliament House office at 9am in the morning on her birthday when an office bearer - and a good friend of her boss - approached to give her a "birthday kiss".

He waited until the others left the room before he assaulted her, aggressively rubbing the shocked victim's crotch.

"It was predatory," she says.

"I never said anything about it because if I did I wouldn't be allowed to come to Canberra and my pay would go down. I had seen it happen to another girl and when she brought it up, she wasn't allowed back.

"So I put on my big girl pants and kept my mouth shut."

That was 20 years ago.

The Member of Parliament is now dead. It's taken until now for a cultural reset she believes is long overdue.

"It's taken a rape allegation to acknowledge there is something wrong here and if it descends into politics as usual it will be worse for everyone," she says.

The stories of predators inside the halls of power in Canberra are as common as they are textbook.

Brittany Higgins came forward about allegations of rape in Parliament House.
Brittany Higgins came forward about allegations of rape in Parliament House.

The list of sexual antics ranges from the relatively benign flirtation to the "accidental" touches - over-friendly hugs, boob grazing, hip pinching and thigh squeezes - to the traumatic alleged rape in the ministerial suite.

Allegations of drunk staff being preyed upon by opportunistic predators, sleazy phone calls and 2am text messages, bum-pinching, vagina-grabbing, crotch-touching in an often-aggressive environment fuelled by stress, extreme hours, inflated egos and topped off with too much alcohol.

Those inside the Canberra bubble work hard and they play hard, and when the sexual innuendo and games turns to unwanted advances and worse, the victims know to get any justice is going to be a long, exhausting, expensive and traumatic experience with little or no chance of people believing them.

My own experience is one of the rare sleazes who spoils it all.

I was dancing with a group of staffers and MPs at a dark party when a brazen, and married, Member pushed his fingers up my dress, past my underwear and inside me.

I know that I put him on a pedestal because I respected him and I was shocked that he mistook my respect as sexual interest but I think in hindsight he just saw me as another conquest.

I didn't report it because at the time I believed it was an error of judgment on his part. It was pitch-black and I don't believe anyone else even knew anything had happened. I left the dance area and drank myself into oblivion.

Later, I burned the dress and deleted every photograph ever taken of wearing it. After shock rolls a long descent of self blame.

It became the fault of the dress, my choice for wearing such a loose, floaty skirt and not the erudite MP that poses and flawlessly grins whenever you point a camera his way.

Political volunteers who spend long nights campaigning with people they respect so much are also put at risk.

A young man I campaigned with blurted out one night that he had given a head job to a NSW MP - who promotes himself as a heterosexual - when he was just 17 years old.

Nowadays young NSW Parliament staff are warned away from his office after he has hit the red wine. It triggered a traumatic exploration for the boy of his sexual identity for a long time afterwards.

It is not an issue unique to Canberra, as it is not an issue unique to politics, but it is worse here because of the complex nature of Parliament House.

The sexual culture at Parliament House in Canberra needs to change, insiders say.
The sexual culture at Parliament House in Canberra needs to change, insiders say.

The culture of not reporting to Department of Finance, who technically hire us, or the Australian Federal Police stands to erode the standing of MPs too, who believe consensual encounters can be used to attack them.

"A woman I knew turned up at my place after Parliament with a bottle of wine. We drank, ended up kissing, went to the pub to get more wine, and she came back to my place again where we drank more and kissed again," one MP says.

"She told me if I hired her 'we can do this all the time'."

When the panicking MP refused, the woman later made allegations to reporters in the press gallery that he had molested her. The case has followed him around his whole career.

Now there are those who live it.

Even staffers were abused on nights out in Canberra this week by complete strangers: "You look like a Lib rapist!"

I can't stress enough that the majority of people are respectful of each other. There are far more cases where young women and young men have been completely smashed and instead of being taken advantage of, are taken to their own front doors by total gentlemen.

One MP tried to take a staffer home after a night out and when the young man couldn't remember where he lived and had forgotten his wallet and phone, the MP gave him water and a bucket and a couch to spend the night.

"If you see a vulnerable person, your first thought is to get them to a safe place - not to use them for your own sexual gratification," another says.

The issues is when that doesn't happen and the lack of framework that exists to escalate events without disclosing it to the police.

Many office managers and chief of staffs are hired with no human resources experience, just as many Members are elected into Parliament having never employed anybody before, never hired a subordinate and never having extensive training.

If you are a "good" staffer, then it is your job to protect the boss at all costs. That means that if you are assaulted or sexually harassed, you do not tell them because as we are seeing with onslaught of attacks on Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, just them knowing puts them at risk.

 

For staffers, your success hinges on your boss's success. If your boss is promoted, so are you. Even the offices of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack have staff on six-figure salaries on the blue carpet who were employed in the electorate office in Wagga Wagga and Cronulla years ago.

Only loyalty has landed them in the highest offices in the country.

In this way, staff who are the victims of assaults are regarded as a political problem by their colleagues. Certainly, Brittany Higgins felt like that.

Former Chiefs of Staff in the NSW State Government say they do not get HR training. In Parliament House, Capital Hill, MPs are referred to online modules but there is no code of conduct or ethics to indoctrinate staff with.

Some offices have a mission statement but it is a creation of their own making and holds no legislative or procedural power. There is a federal guide to ministerial conduct but no code of conduct covering senators and members.

Many MPs and Senators on both sides believe an external review and a proper process akin to those used in the military is long overdue.

"We are light years behind the civil sector," one MP said.

"Even if we clear up this case with Brittany Higgins, without a set process, what's going to happen next week?"

In the wake of Brittany's rape allegations, the Department of Finance told all MOPS Act employees of the external counselling service available through the Employee Assistance Program to talk through external experiences.

"I called the number only to be put through to a call centre psychologist, a person who had no understanding of politics, or the political process, who admitted they had never voted before - who could not fathom what I was enduring daily, who when I told them I was suicidal because of this daily bullying told me to 'go for a walk' and 'eat healthy'," one former staffer said.

Brittany Higgins’ allegations have brought a spotlight on the culture in Parliament House.
Brittany Higgins’ allegations have brought a spotlight on the culture in Parliament House.

"Everything I had worked for was in ruins and I was being told carrot sticks would help."

Other MPs believe leadership starts at the top and all reports should be made to the Party Leader, Department of Finance, Party Whip, and Presiding Officers - and if it's criminal, the Australian Federal Police as well.

"If someone is preying on people they should be completely and utterly arsed straight away," one Coalition MP said.

"Mandatory reporting would trigger immediate change if people knew that an allegation would go straight to the top."

Parliament House itself is a unique sexually-charged eco-system. It's not just MPs and staff. There is a hierarchy of lobbyists, often made up of former ministers and staff, who also have been harassed, were harassers themselves or have engaged in consensual affairs with Ministers and Members.

There are the clerks who run the proceedings, the press gallery and the political hangers-on, the party associates, and "government relations" advisers who often appear to be lingering in the corridors.

Then, there's the honeycomb walls, a house almost designed to isolate and separate. Here, in the dark nooks of democracy, the house of law has less procedure than law it prescribes everywhere else in the nation.

After allegations were raised on Four Corners late last year in regard to the culture of Parliament House, Labor women - to their disbelief - were schooled on what constituted sexual harassment.

"They know what harassment is. As women they live it every day," one said.

While women are speaking up, the young men who have been touched or handled by closeted bosses are quieter than ever.

"I'd worked myself into such a state I was pissing blood," one male staffer said.

Others have panic attacks before entering the building.

 

 

There is anger that no external processes were introduced after the high profile legal stoush of Peter Slipper, who is now an ordained priest, accused of sexually harassing his staffer James Ashby a decade ago.

The former Gillard Labor government agreed to pay Slipper's legal costs but Ashby was left to foot his own bill reportedly totalling $4.5m. Slipper fought the allegations and after a long legal battle the complainant withdrew from the case.

The lesson for other staff is grim. Reporting is expensive for both your character and wallet because MPs can defend themselves with their lawyers paid by the government.

"If you are going to report it, you have to consider whether you have the time and money in your life to press charges and go through the judicial process," one affected person said.

Even the press gallery has had men who were protected by the Parliamentary culture of protecting sources and predators.

"I was sexually assaulted by a press gallery member (who no longer works at Parliament). I said nothing. I left and later he was hired as a media adviser," a former staffer said.

From the Ministerial suites to MPs and staff, across minor parties, the Coalition and Labor, there is hope that the culture of secrecy that ultimately protects predators will change.

The Multi-Party Process led by Special Minister of State Simon Birmingham is supposed to look at any cultural and structural issues.

There is an element of hope among the population here to ensure we are safe and respected at work.

Former staff are lining up to provide evidence to the multi-party inquiry, assured in part that it is looking for solutions, and not to harvest individual gripes.

"Culturally, it's f**ked across all parties," a former staffer says.

"Finally, I think we are acknowledging we have a problem here."

Originally published as Culture of silence: Predators inside Parliament House


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