Parliament’s Workplace Culture Is Failing Young Women

Brittany Higgins' allegations revealed a series of failures in a system which ultimately made the young staffer feel pressured to keep quiet.

brittany higgins parliament workplace culture

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On Monday night’s The Project, 26-year-old former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins bravely recounted her experience of alleged sexual assault at Parliament House. Her account revealed a workplace culture in which the young staffer ultimately felt pressured to keep quiet, as her story is not an isolated incident.

According to the episode, the police force that operates in parliament “answers to politicians” and kept vital evidence — CCTV footage from the night of the incident — from Higgins, therefore playing a key role in how the system ultimately failed her.

So, how does this police force work, and how exactly is the culture of this workplace failing young women?

Gabrielle Appleby, Professor at the Law Faculty of the University of New South Wales says while there is a special wing of the Australian Federal Police that operate in Parliament House, the episode didn’t quite get it right.

“Parliament House is a Commonwealth place, so it’s not a place in which state or territory police officers have jurisdiction, but it’s a place where the Australian Federal Police have jurisdiction. There’s a special part of the Australian Federal Police called the Australian Protective Services that work in Commonwealth places, including Parliament House.”

“The Parliament House precinct is a place in which the general criminal law does apply, but there are some instances where some laws such as defamation don’t apply. This is generally when members of parliament are speaking in the chamber and the reason why there’s that immunity is because we want our representatives to be able to speak freely.”

This is not just limited to Federal Parliament — it’s also how state parliaments operate. The police have jurisdiction, but do not infringe on parliamentary privilege. This is designed to prevent anything from blocking parliamentarians from doing their jobs.

Appleby confirms “general criminal offences do not impinge on parliamentarians doing their job, and in this case, the criminal law which is the law of rape would be applicable in Parliament House.”

So, what about the claim the police answer to politicians?

“There is a memorandum of understanding between the presiding officers, which is the speaker of the lower house and the president of the Senate — both of whom are members of parliament — and the AFP around how, for example, the guard stations are set up and how search warrants are executed within Parliament House but that does not mean they are answering to politicians.”

“The memorandum of understanding in how they exercise their powers is to make sure the narrow area of parliamentary privilege is not infringed.”

What happened with Higgins’ not being able to access vital evidence to her case — CCTV footage from the night of the incident — is unclear. In Monday night’s episode, it is insinuated the AFP was unable to gather this evidence from Parliament House due to the way the police force within Parliament is set up.

And while it’s unclear at this stage why exactly the CCTV footage was not made accessible to Higgins, Appleby points out the failure ultimately lies on the political party which made a young staffer who had suffered a traumatic event feel she had to choose between reporting a crime and keeping her “dream job”.

“The spotlight needs to be on the political party and how she was treated. It’s just a massive, gaping failure. The failure isn’t parliamentary privilege, the failure is the minister’s office. There needs to be a culture change.”

The culture is a little like this: There’s a highly competitive work environment where workers are treated as disposable, a big drinking culture, long hours, and a unique hiring arrangement, which puts employees at a big disadvantage. A hiring arrangement really only seen for politicians and judges.

“There’s this idea these institutions of state are exceptional because a politician has a democratic mandate, and because the judge has a cloak of judicial independence, so those who work for them are directly employed. This creates an extraordinary one on one employment relationship in which one person holds all of the power,” says Appleby.

“This is a very personal employment relationship and we saw last year, instances of sexual harassment by Justice Dyson Heydon. There was no appropriate mechanism for those women to go to. We are failing young women in particular, but also young people employed in these places.”

And while some progress has been made since the damning allegations against Justice Heydon, including an announcement of a new independent agency to oversee judges’ misconduct, no progress has been made in Parliament despite allegations late last year in a 4 Corner’s episode of sexual misconduct and bad workplace culture.

Considering many parliamentary staff are young and female — with more than 50% of staffers recruited in their 20s according to one study. And this has long-lasting effects. In an independent review conducted about workplace culture in New Zealand’s parliament, it was revealed young staff believed the negative aspects of their workplace culture were normal and emerged from their employment with a high tolerance for bad behaviour.

In this report it was also found that although staff were technically employed by the Parliamentary Service, their day-to-day employment did not function this way.

One person reported “MP’s don’t like being told what to do about staff,” and another said “Parliamentary Service won’t stand up to Members even when they’re in the right on an employment matter. They’re too intimidated by MPs’ status and by the ego of some of them.” This indicates that simply changing who the employer is will not achieve real cultural change, as many staff continued to report fear of speaking up and being branded “disloyal” both to their boss and their political parties.

Since the reveal of Higgins’ story, the Prime Minister has since announced a review into workplace culture at Parliament House. However, the review will not be conducted independently as was the case in New Zealand and even the UK, rather by a member of the Liberal party, Celia Hammond — whose personal views are anti-feminist and conservative.

And so, what seems like a moment of reckoning — dubbed the #MeToo movement of Parliament House by many – may instead continue to fail ambitious and driven young women, saving our politicians from real accountability.

Rashna is a young Muslim multi-hyphenate with lots of strong opinions. You can find her on Twitter @rashna_f if you want to hear them (or better yet, hire her).