23 March 2021

SUBJECT: Workplace culture in Parliament House.


SUBJECT: Workplace culture in Parliament House.

BEN O’SHEA, HOST: Joining me now is the Federal Labor Member for Brand, Madeleine King. Good morning, Madeleine. 


O'SHEA: Yeah, fantastic. Thank you. Now the PM was in tears, talking about the treatment of women in Canberra and, more broadly, in Australia. Has he finally got it right with his response, or is it too little too late? 

KING: Well, Ben, I think it is important to note that the Prime Minister has today admitted or come to the realisation of just how very serious these incidents are. Incidents were happening for years but really focused in these last five weeks of public anger of Australian women that have been subject to sexual assault, sexual violence, domestic violence for what seems like forever and a day. He expressed what most of us feel, that family is at the centre of our lives, and we depend upon our families. We seek solace with our families. We turn to them for inspiration and help. But right now, it is the Australian women that work in this place in the Parliament, that also live their everyday lives around the country that really need the attention and solace of the Prime Minister. 

O'SHEA: And the PM said that over the last month or so, he has been listening to women, and he's learned that they're not treated very well. They're not treated equally in the workplace, that they fear for their safety when they're out in public. Do you think it should have taken the incidents of the past five weeks for him to come to that realisation? 

KING: It's remarkable that he's only just become aware in the last five weeks that this is how women feel, and I reflect on a piece that Melissa Price wrote recently about the fact that when she's out, at night, walking back to her car, she carries her keys with her in case she's attacked. I do exactly the same thing, and I've done it for many, many years. So women in this place know what we are vulnerable to, and women around the country know that you can't walk home at night alone because something might happen to you, and how the Prime Minister's has not become aware of that or only become aware of it in the last five weeks is absolutely staggering. How he's only become aware of this when we see women get killed every week by former partners or current partners, and we speak about this in Parliament all the time. Those horrific deaths are an indicator of other violence and sexual assault that's going on in this community. So it kind of beggars belief that the realisation has only come now. 

O'SHEA: And what did you make of yesterday's leak of those disgusting images of lewd acts committed in a female MP’s office? Were you surprised to hear such behaviour goes on behind closed doors in Parliament?

KING: Ben, I could never have imagined this kind of behaviour goes on in any place, quite frankly, let alone where I work and where many thousands of people work. But it is a pattern of behaviour among a group of men that is designed to humiliate and degrade women. There's nothing less than that. To masturbate on a female MPs desk is a demonstration of the power one thinks they have over that MP and to humiliate that person and therefore all of us. Now there are many men as equally disgusted as I am about these revelations, and we all walked around this morning and last night shaking our heads going where does this behaviour come from in this world. Like, in what place did these men develop or grow up? And what culture did they work in where they think that this is somehow acceptable or something to show off about? And I'm mystified? It's a very deep cultural problem where people want to film themselves doing such acts and send it around to other people, like, what are they thinking? 

O'SHEA: It's gross, it is absolutely gross, and the claims of a meditation room and a prayer room being used for sex. Prostitutes allegedly brought into the building. Like, I think the general public is thinking, how could this even happen in any workplace, let alone Parliament House? And are we talking about a few bad eggs? Or is this a system that has become rotten to its core? 

KING: Well, I mean, you're right to point out about the allegations of the prayer room and what an affront to those people that use the prayer room for its intended purpose, to meditate or meet for prayer, which many parliamentarians do. You know, I've worked here for five years, and I worked here before for a minister, and I have never seen behaviour like this before in my life working here. I've seen parties that are generally like any other party I would go to, good fun that gets a bit rowdy, but nothing more than that. But somewhere in this building, this stuff is happening. Evidentially because we're hearing it, we're seeing the videos. We know a young woman was raped in this building, and you know, sadly, it might not be the only such occasion. So, the people of Australia could rightly think what the heck is going on there? What is this hotbed of sex and videotapes that is going on? But you know, most of us are hard-working, diligent, we're committed to our electorates, to the arguments or civil arguments we have in this place. But nonetheless, each of us and our staff, no matter what they do and how well they behave, are all tainted by this, and the Australian people have the right to be angry about the behaviours going on in this building, just as I am. 

O'SHEA: Now, I would have thought that the tipping point in this culture crisis would have happened four or five weeks ago when Brittany Higgins alleged that she was raped in Parliament House, but it seems like it took this photographic evidence of these lewd acts. Why do you think that is? Why was that the straw that broke the camel's back? 

KING: It's a very good question. It does seem to be that photos and images and shared videos of men masturbating has caused more uproar than the alleged rape of a young woman in a Minister's office. That in itself is staggering.

O'SHEA: I can't even get my head around how that is even something that I'm talking to a federal politician about.

KING: I can't believe I'm talking about it, but one is a criminal act. You know, rape is a criminal offence that will ruin that young woman's life forever. Undoubtedly, the perpetrator is also affected. The other behaviour is not actually illegal. I mean, it's morally bankrupt, but it's not illegal. Yet that's the behaviour that has seen everyone taking action, and I guess if that's what it takes, that's what it takes, but you know, surely it should have taken something much more serious five weeks ago, to take the whole matter of violence and public humiliation of women more seriously. 

O'SHEA: In the clip we just heard, we heard the PM address the criticism he copped for using his daughters to contextualise what happened to Brittany Higgins. Do you think that criticism was fair? And is it important for people to find empathy any way they can, even if it means imagining something happening to their daughter? At least they're trying to understand what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes.

KING: Yeah, that's a good question, and I'm really not going to criticise the Prime Minister reflecting on his family and how he does contextualise these things. The thing I do think about is that not all of us have the same family structure, and that doesn't mean we can't be empathetic for the situations of others, even though we haven't experienced them or don't know people that have experienced such events. So it's like, I don't have children, so, therefore, how could I possibly understand the matter, and that's not true because I have family and I have friends that have been attacked and raped. So obviously, I understand some of the issues involved and the concerns people have, but as you say, if people need to find the empathy, they need to find it from wherever they can get. One would hope that your lifetime experience and your basic humaneness would deliver that empathy. 

O'SHEA: Talking specifically about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has called the Government's investigation more of a cover-up of who knew what. How would you describe the handling of the situation? 

KING: Well, it's taking a long time to get to the bottom of it. The fact that the Phil Gaetjens report was started and then stopped, and the Prime Minister knew this yet didn't tell the Parliament, and that was revealed in Senate estimates this week. That was the investigation into what all his staff knew. So that hasn't happened. So that's one sort of internal report that the Government is not doing and has known they were not going to do for some time, yet not dealt with it. So, I think that's a big fail. The fact that the security guard that clearly was witness o most of the event of the evening, which is two years ago to this day that young Brittany Higgins was raped, that security guard has only been interviewed by the media. So how does that work out? I mean, I'm not a special investigator or a police officer, so I'm not an expert in these things, but it does seem remarkable that all the security guards on duty that night have not yet been interviewed, and certainly not this one. So the handling of it beggars belief, and I'm glad there's a larger inquiry by the Human Rights Commission and I think that will be a very important piece of work. I have complete confidence in how the Commissioner is going to run that after she did a briefing with the Labor caucus. But the bits and pieces around this and the never-ending questions and the never-ending non-answers are really mystifying. This is a situation where the Prime Minister and the Government would do well to let the light in, so that we can all see what has happened, deal properly with what has happened, respect the women in this building, and try and move forward to develop a better culture in this Parliament. 

O'SHEA: Do you think it makes it hard to take what he said today at face value, to believe that he's sincere when there is this lack of transparency on who knew what around the Brittany Higgins allegation? 

KING: Well, yeah, it does. You're absolutely right, and there's sort of a don't ask, don't tell culture that's developed, where clearly staff have known and for whatever reason, the Prime Minister has created an office where they don't feel they should tell him about a crime that allegedly happened very close to his own office and in the Minister's office. So, it's hard to take what they're doing seriously when it's not backed up by actions in finding out more about what happened and quickly. So people could rightly feel that this is not being treated seriously by the Government. 

O'SHEA: How do we create an environment where women feel it's safe to come forward and speak up about these types of allegations? 

KING: I think we have to talk about it more. We have to make sure we speak to our staff and other women we deal with that their careers will not be hindered by telling the truth and feeling free to speak out. That's much easier said than done because of the, and I mean for the women and the victims themselves, because this is trauma and a lot of people don't want to relive trauma, and we can all understand that. But, you know, I know Tanya Plibersek has done it, I've done it, many MPs have done it. We express in the Parliament the need, and the promise that you know, your career will not be affected if you come forward. You just need to feel that you can and urge women to do so, again, much easier said than done, because when you're a victim you're in a very different place altogether. 

O'SHEA: And so far, this has been a Coalition issue. Can you categorically say this type of boys’ club behaviour isn't happening in Labor offices with Labor staffers? 

KING: I most certainly would not claim that. This is a society-wide problem, I think. The focus is right now on activities within the coalition, but I've not seen any incidences made as publicly as these, but I've no doubt there has been something that would have happened in the Labor Party, and we've seen that in the Facebook posts that were put on an internal staff group that allege that. I'm glad that those staff have found that space to talk about their very negative experiences of harassment in the workplace, and I only hope they take up the chance to speak with the Human Rights Commissioner in that inquiry. To put these things on the record and use their experiences as an opportunity for change, but yeah, I totally accept that there would have been bad behaviour within the Labor Party. 

O'SHEA: Well, as you say, it's an issue not just for politics, but one for Australia and one that we must grapple with if we are ever going to make improvements. Hopefully, today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's comments are a step in the right direction. Federal Labor Member for Brand, Madeleine King, thanks for being on The West Live today. 

KING: Thank you very much, Ben.