“If you’re not hearing about it, it absolutely doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It’s just that you’re not looking hard enough.”
The Champions of Change Coalition Ms Broderick founded released a handbook, Disrupting the System, late last year outlining the best practice for organisations to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. It offers leaders practical examples of policies and actions they should take.
A key component is transparency about sexual harassment complaints while maintaining confidentiality for those involved. Ms Broderick believes non-disclosure agreements that solely protect the reputation of the organisation or the perpetrator – and gag the victim from telling their story on their own terms – should no longer be part of the picture.
“If you’re still thinking that these things can be hidden away, I would challenge that,” she said. “We should assume that these things will become public knowledge.
“Those days are gone. That implicit bargain, and particularly with senior men, that if you sexually harass, we won’t tolerate that and we may exit you, but … we’ll leak that you want to spend more time with the family. No. There’s a much greater level of transparency.”
The government has commissioned Ms Broderick’s successor, current Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, to review the culture of Parliament in light of Ms Higgins’ allegations and a number of other staffers coming forward with their own allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, in setting up that review, said Parliament should set the standard for workplaces across the country.
Ms Broderick said as it stood now, the private sector had moved well beyond parliament in dealing with these issues.
Disrupting the System lists 31 signs workers may be at risk of sexual harassment. The work environment and requirements of political jobs in Parliament House match at least half of them.
While having elected representatives in the workplace mix added a layer of complexity, Ms Broderick said it wasn’t necessarily more complex than other organisations. She pointed to the military, which had a similarly complex hierarchy and power asymmetry to parliaments.
“If the claim is that uniqueness [of parliament] should be the reason that we don’t have to respond in the same way as other organisations, I reject that as a proposition,” she said. “Every organisation has a responsibility to ensure that their workforce is safe.”
She also rejected the suggestion from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, backed by a letter to MPs from Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw, that allegations of criminal behaviour such as rape should be automatically referred to authorities.
Mandatory reporting regimes have been shown to discourage victims from coming forward at all because they lose control of what happens to their complaint and story.
“If it leads to a decrease in the number of people who are prepared to come forward, is that a good thing?”
National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line: 1800 737 732. Crisis support can be found at Lifeline: (13 11 14 and lifeline.org.au), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467 and suicidecallbackservice.org.au) and beyondblue (1300 22 4636 and beyondblue.org.au).
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Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.