Why a code of conduct may not be enough to change the boys’ club culture in the Liberal Party



There has been sustained criticism of the Liberal Party for its under-representation of women in parliament.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Marija Taflaga, Australian National University and Katrine Beauregard, Australian National University

Last week, two former Liberal Party staffers, Dhanya Mani and Chelsea Potter, made claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault against two Liberal party staff members.

It highlighted again how hostile political life can be for women and the fact the Liberals lack any mechanism to manage sexual harassment and assault claims. In response, the party’s federal council has decided to introduce a new code of conduct, likely by the end of the year.

But the Liberals’ “woman” problems go deeper than this. There has been sustained criticism of the party for its under-representation of women in parliament and claims of a bullying culture dominated by a “boys’ club.”

Will a code of conduct help to change this culture? And how well do these kinds of codes actually work?

Dhanya Mani’s request for the Liberal Party to investigate an alleged sexual assault by a fellow staffer never went anywhere. ‘No one seemed to care about my life, or my career,’ she says.
Supplied by Women’s Agenda

A problem across the political spectrum

Decades of research have shown how legislatures continue to be hostile work environments for women. In Australia, research by Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, for instance, has catalogued multiple instances of sexism and sexual harassment in the Australian federal parliament.

The Liberal Party is hardly the only political organisation to be confronted with this issue. Virtually all major Australian political parties have faced scandals relating to sexual harassment in recent years.

The Nationals were criticised last year for their handling of a complaint against Barnaby Joyce. In the Labor party, former NSW leader Luke Foley resigned after allegations that he inappropriately touched an ABC journalist.




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The Greens have been wracked by internal infighting over allegations of sexual harassment, resulting in the development of both formal and informal complaints processes.

The varied nature of these cases alone shows just how complex – and all too common – the problem remains.

Sexual harassment of women in politics is not limited to Australia, either, as the
sex-pest” scandal in the UK and recent sexual misconduct allegations against two MPs in Canada have demonstrated.

Given the prevalence of sexual harassment scandals, what is the most effective way for legislatures and political parties to respond?

Luke Foley denied the allegations against him, but quit as Labor leader nonetheless.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

The role of the parties

Organisationally, political parties straddle ambiguous ground. Parties are professional organisations that employ small numbers of staff and are subject to regulations and rules. Yet, they are also civic institutions that rely on volunteer labour. Their budgets fluctuate wildly from feast to famine. Further, political staff are paid for by the taxpayer, but they are not considered public servants.

As such, it is not always clear what recourse is available to party members who want to file a complaint for sexual harassment. For the most part, they are entirely reliant on whatever processes have been put in place by the parties.




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Perhaps it’s this complexity, as well as the fact that countless organisations seek to cover up bad behaviour, that has led so many in the Liberal Party to argue these matters should be referred to police.

It raises the issue of what responsibilities and obligations the parties have when it comes to managing sexual harassment complaints.

This is not an abstract question. There are implications for how safe people feel in their workplaces and within their civic institutions. It also has implications for which MPs are selected and elected to represent us.

How Canada’s code of conduct works

Canada has been a pioneer in this regard. In 2015, the country was the first with a Westminster-style government to adopt a legislative-wide code of conduct to govern all non-criminal sexual harassment between MPs, regardless of party.

Following the claims of sexual harassment against the Liberal MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, the Canadian House of Commons adopted the code in June 2015. It includes a series of measures aimed at preventing sexual harassment, as well as a specific rule that prohibits one MP from sexually harassing another. When a claim is made, the code spells out a seven-step resolution process.

Research by Canadian political scientists Cheryl N. Collier and Tracy Raney identifies some issues with the code of conduct that could be useful to consider for those seeking to implement a similar code in Australia.

One is the distinction between criminal and non-criminal sexual harassment. The Canadian code specifically addresses non-criminal actions. If a criminal offence has occurred, the matter will only be referred to the “appropriate law enforcement agency” if the complainant agrees.

But this distinction between non-criminal and criminal is blurry. Confusion over where criminal behaviour begins may prevent victims from using the code if they are unsure how to categorise their specific experience.

This is especially relevant given the recent cases of Mani and Potter in Australia. They were advised to go to the police when they made an internal party complaint. They have strongly argued, as has Liberal party veteran Kathryn Greiner, that such advice allows the party to sidestep responsibility for its culture.

Problems with the Canadian model

The Canadian code of conduct also delegates responsibility to party whips to facilitate conversation, mediation, investigation and resolution of complaints. Whips are elected offices, held by politicians. Their main job is to ensure party discipline, which might conflict with addressing claims of sexual harassment.

This may result in quick and quiet resolutions to ensure that minimal damage is done to the party. If the code is simply used to keep people quiet, this would do little to bring about a meaningful resolution process.

Further, the adoption of a code of conduct that emphasises confidentiality raises issues about what is in the public interest. This could mean the public will never know if an MP has been found to have sexually harassed someone. And this information, many would argue, is intrinsically in the public interest.




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A final important lesson from the Canadian code of conduct relates to parliamentary privileges. Importantly, it does not cover speeches inside the House of Commons, meaning that MPs can use any language they want without fear of reprisal.

As David Leyonhjelm’s use of a sexist slur against Sarah Hanson-Young in the Australian Senate last year shows, this freedom of speech can create a sexist and toxic working environment for women.

This incident, as well as previous scandals, has shone a light on the fact that political parties, just like other civic institutions, need to think about how they will respond to abuse perpetrated within their organisations.

However, as the Canadian example demonstrates, adopting a set of rules is not enough if there aren’t transparent pathways toward a resolution.

Strong leadership is also critical

This lies at the heart of Mani and Potter’s advocacy for rules that extend beyond the individual parties and would cover the behaviour of all MPs. To that end, they are trying to create a forum for women to share their stories and organise.

It also helps explain why these cases have so quickly been linked to the ongoing debate about gender quotas within the Liberal Party. The aim is to change the norms of acceptable behaviour within the party, not just deal with individual complaints of harassment when they happen.

Just 23% of the Coalition’s MPs are women, compared to 47% for Labor.
Lukas Coch/AAP

We already know it’s hard for women in political life. While a code of conduct is a step in the right direction, it is unlikely to change the internal culture of the Liberal Party, or any other party.

What’s needed is strong leadership and sustained public pressure that makes it is harder for political parties to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment and assault.

After all, it’s difficult to know how many budding careers have come to an end because of this kind of behaviour across the political spectrum. As Mani herself put it, when describing the party response to her allegations:

I was told ‘You do realise you could ruin his life and he could lose his job, don’t you?’ No one seemed to care about my life, or my career.The Conversation

Marija Taflaga, Lecturer, School of Political Science and International Relations, Australian National University and Katrine Beauregard, Lecturer, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Diplomacy and defence remain a boys’ club, but women are making inroads



Julie Bishop and Marise Payne have risen to the top in foreign affairs, but their successes may be masking more systemic issues preventing women from advancement.
William West/AAP

Susan Harris Rimmer, Griffith University and Elise Stephenson, Griffith University

The Lowy Institute has launched a three-year study on gender representation in Australia’s diplomatic, defence and intelligence services, and the findings are critical: gender diversity lags significantly behind Australia’s public service and corporate sector, as well as other countries’ foreign services.

In a field which has long ignored research on gender or feminist approaches to understanding international relations, this report is welcome and sets forth an important research agenda within Australia.

Gender diversity is an important issue for all who value the pursuit of Australia’s national interests overseas. Attracting and retaining the best talent is more important now than ever before.

As then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in June 2017:

The economic, political and strategic currents that have carried us for generations are increasingly difficult to navigate.

The report’s most significant findings

The Lowy Institute found that of all the fields in international relations, women are least represented in Australia’s intelligence communities.

As the funding and resources of the intelligence sector continue to grow, this is a serious problem with little transparency. The sector appears to be struggling with a “pipeline” and “ladder” problem: women are both joining at lower rates and progressing at far slower rates than their male counterparts.

Another important finding is that the presence of female trailblazers in these fields, such as foreign ministers Julie Bishop and Marise Payne and Labor’s shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, may be masking more systemic issues. This may be leading some agencies to becoming complacent, rather than proactive, on gender diversity.




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Women’s pathways to leadership continue to be impeded by institutional obstacles, such as unconscious bias and discrimination built into the cultures of these sectors, as well as difficulties in supporting staff on overseas postings. For instance, the report notes that in 2017 the government cut assistance packages for overseas officers, including government childcare subsidies. This has gendered ramifications given that women continue to do the bulk of domestic labour.

As such, the most important and high-prestige international postings are still largely dominated by men. DFAT’s Women in Leadership Strategy has proved successful in meeting initial targets for improving women’s representation, however the industry as a whole has not yet followed suit.

Further, it is not enough to just consider how many women there are, but what roles they occupy, given that women have often been siloed into “soft policy” or corporate areas and out of key operational roles needed for career progression.

The report also draws attention to the marginalisation of women from key policy-shaping activities.

From the study’s research on declared authorship, a woman is yet to be selected to lead on any major foreign policy, defence, intelligence, or trade white paper, inquiry or independent review.




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We would mention a few exceptions of women in other high-profile foreign policy roles – Heather Smith’s stewardship of the G20 during Australia’s presidency and Harinder Sidhu’s leadership in the crucial India High Commission. We would also note the contribution of Jane Duke to the ASEAN Summit in Sydney.

Rebecca Skinner has served as associate defence secretary since 2017 and Justine Grieg was appointed deputy secretary defence people in 2018. Major General Cheryl Pearce was also appointed commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus – the first Australian woman to command a UN peacekeeping mission.

Cheryl Pearce was commander of the Australian joint task force group in Afghanistan before taking up her current role.
Paul Miller/AAP

While the under-representation of women in international affairs remains a core concern, we would argue the report could have taken a broader look at gender representation in foreign affairs-focused academic communities, think tanks and publishing industries, as well.

Many of these organisations have similarly woeful records when it comes to gender diversity. For instance, Australian Foreign Affairs magazine has been criticised for the lack of women authors it publishes. We know that it is not for lack of credible voices, but rather seems indicative of a systematic form of marginalisation of women within the wider foreign affairs community.

Bright spots for gender diversity

However, there is some cause for optimism. For instance, our current PhD project is documenting the gender make-up of leaders and internationally deployed representatives in the departments of foreign affairs and trade, defence and home affairs, as well as the Australian Federal Police. As of this January, women represented 39.5% of those in the senior executive service in DFAT, and 41.4% of those employed as heads of Australian embassies and high commissions globally.

Further, we’ve found an increase recently in the number of women who work in diplomatic defence roles. While the Lowy report notes that women held just 11% of international roles in defence in 2016 (it is unclear exactly what international roles they are talking about), we found a slightly higher percentage of women (19%) currently employed in defence attaché roles.




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The achievements made in this sphere are not just limited to gender either, with women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds forming an important and growing part of representation.

In fact, a more in-depth analysis of the Lowy report’s data would have produced some very interesting, and more nuanced, findings. For instance, foreign affairs has long been the preserve of men, however it has also been the preserve of certain types of men. Diplomacy remains a bastion of prestige, social class, heteronormativity, and in Australia, Anglo-Saxon privilege. It was only last year, for example, that Australia’s first Indigenous woman, Julie-Ann Guivarra, was appointed ambassador (to Spain).

Overall, as the report outlines, gender equality is not just nice to have, nor is it a marginal issue in foreign policy. Rather, the findings are clear: addressing the continued gender gaps are imperative to Australian foreign policy, national security and stability.

We can, and must, do better. Australian foreign policy needs good ideas, and it needs a lot of them. We cannot assume they will all come from the same place.The Conversation

Susan Harris Rimmer, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Griffith Law School, Griffith University and Elise Stephenson, PhD Candidate, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.