Skip navigation

Motion: Review of Sexual Harassment in South Australian Parliament

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. T.A. Franks:

That this council notes the report by the Equal Opportunity Commission to the houses of the South Australian Parliament, entitled Review of Harassment in the South Australian Parliament Workplace, dated February 2021.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:36): I rise to conclude my comments noting the report on the instances of sexual harassment in this parliament that has been presented to us by the acting equal opportunity commissioner of this state. I rise to speak about sexual harassment, specifically the sexual and discriminatory harassment that exists here in our own system of governance. It is a scourge that a lot of people would rather pretend does not exist, insisting instead that these institutions such as ours of power and privilege are somehow immune from such things.

Acting Commissioner Emily Strickland has said in the introduction to her report, 'The fact that political institutions are far from immune from unacceptable, unlawful behaviours is disturbing.' It is quite disturbing. It is not surprising—absolutely not surprising. From the findings of the equal opportunity commissioner and its review of harassment in our South Australian parliamentary workplace—this workplace—we know that it simply is not true.

In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a single woman working in this workplace, where our laws are made and codified daily, who has not experienced some sort of sexual harassment or sexism in her lifetime. For those who then experience it in this very place at such a rate is not just disappointing, it is certainly not surprising, it is indeed to our shame.

The women in this workplace have become so adapted to the presence of sexual harassment that they have learnt not to be surprised or shocked by it, only disappointed, as they have stated in the report. We thought, no doubt, aspiring to be in this place—whether it is a politician, a staff member, or anyone who works in this building in the various work roles that we have here—that perhaps a place designated to form the law might somehow be different. It has, of course, been shown to not be different. In fact, it has possibly been shown to be far from different, but indeed one of the last vestiges where the shame of sexual harassment is kept far too secret.

It has been quite a bad start to the political year, with the federal government's own handling of alleged sexual harassment, both the historical and the more recent, being so poorly managed, and with our own Prime Minister, the leader of this nation, demonstrating himself to be completely lacking in either empathy for the women of Australia or, potentially, respect for the women and girls of Australia in his response on Monday to the tens of thousands of those marching against misogyny, those women and girls, and men and boys, who marched this Monday. The words of the Prime Minister in response to that protest were to feign admiration that at least in this country we were not going to be shot.

As we march for justice and as we march for an end to violence and sexual harassment, those words that we were lucky we would not be met by bullets show that the Prime Minister has a lot more to do in terms of his empathy training. Are we supposed to feel grateful for not being shot? Are we supposed to be grateful that at least we were allowed to march against misogyny and disdain on Monday and that our own government would not kill us for the privilege? Of course, that is exactly what we are made to feel. We are made to feel that we should be showing gratitude—gratitude for the benevolent sexism that allows us to speak even if it concurrently mocks and trivialises almost everything we say.

I point to the federal parliament because, as supported by the findings of this South Australian report, it would be an act of great hubris indeed to pretend that our own hallowed halls are any less filled with contemptible acts of sexism and harassment than other parliaments, and we must remember that as we consider our next steps. We have an opportunity in South Australia to become national leaders in regard to tackling institutional parliamentary misogyny, but we know that, with any pathway to reform, admitting we actually have a problem and owning that problem is the first step.

What this report covers is not pleasant, but it is a catalyst for change and a change that I hope we look back on in coming years with some pride. It is a report that has already started to have a domino effect, as we see the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, take a similar challenge and shine a torchlight of transparency on the federal parliament, as we have now done in South Australia.

Something else that I would like to urge consideration on as we reflect upon this report is what is lost if we refuse to act. In the narrative of rape culture and sexual harassment, we hear so much about the futures, the potential, of 'promising young men', their promise often excusing their perpetrating. They are men with the world at their feet, men destined for greatness, men who were on the pathway to be the Prime Minister—men, men, men and always men whose glittering destinies are protected with the ferocity of those guarding the crown jewels.

Why do we not fiercely protect the futures of young women in the same way? How many young women have had a capacity for greatness and how many young women's trajectories have not been nurtured quite so delicately, if at all? When reports of harassment have been met with directives to 'just ignore it' or 'not to cause a fuss' or 'that's just what this workplace looks like' or 'if you can't stand the heat then get out of the kitchen', or any number of dismissive minimisations, if those young women have been believed at all, we are sacrificing their potential and we do it at the diminution of our parliaments.

In the face of these cultures that we have seen persist, how many women have abandoned their political ambitions and left their posts, deciding in the end that this potential for greatness does come at too high a cost? How many Brittany Higginses have walked away from a career in politics, learning that the light on the hill was never intended to shine for them? How many promising young women's names will we never know, even as their abusers and harassers go on to become more and more powerful?

Of course, we know, and the findings of this report confirm this, that it is not only women who are subjected to this kind of harassment. Approximately one-third of the survey respondents reported having been harassed about a personal attribute that is protected by our equal opportunity legislation and half of those respondents reported that this harassment had gone on for longer than 12 months. In this and other instances of harassment, over two-thirds of respondents said that they had not reported it because of a range of fears, including a lack of trust in the complaints process and the justifiable fear of repercussions on their career. Where they had done, many felt unsupported in the process and were met with what they believe to be an inadequate response. I do not doubt them.

The machinations of harassment are complex and often invisible to the naked eye. It is so easy to say, 'Well, why don't people report?' This attitude betrays a complete ignorance as to the emotional, structural and financial difficulties faced by those people who do speak out about abuse and workplace toxicity.

Politics, we all know, can be an unforgiving line of work in so many ways, but it is especially unforgiving of those who threaten the team, the party, the faction or, worse still, the game of politics. We cannot ask, 'Why do these people not report?' We must instead ask, 'How can we make it easier for them to report in the first place?' Better still, 'How can we change our culture so that no-one needs it ever again?'

If we cannot adequately answer those questions or take necessary, stringent and committed steps to ensuring those outcomes are realised, we have no business in this place being legislators. I would also add that if you find yourself resistant to this need for change, you absolutely have no business in this workplace in this building. To the respondent who asked to be taken off the list of this review, I say to them it is perhaps time you were taken off the ballot paper.

It is my belief that the most important thing this government can do, and this parliament can do, in response to the acting commissioner's report is to establish a people and culture section. As the acting commissioner wrote, 'Sexual and discriminatory harassment will only be eliminated through concerted efforts to create cultural change.'

That department, that is properly equipped to manage reports of harassment and to swiftly address issues in regard to this, not to mention, of course, provide ongoing workplace training, is what you would find in even any modestly equipped organisation in this day and age. It is astonishing that our state's legislative body has not established this already, but again it perhaps speaks to the hubris that exists across all legislative bodies that assumes the rules are somehow different for us, simply because we get to make them.

Recommendation 3 is the ensuring of flexible workplace arrangements to ensure inclusivity. We may not have experienced the full brunt of the COVID-19 lockdowns, but we have been able to witness adaptability. One of the most logical ways to end sexual discrimination and harassment is to champion the full participation of women in the workplace. If we cannot do that at the highest levels of government here, then what is the point of us?

Until we make it clear that the South Australian parliament is one that values women—many of whom are currently, have been or will be, mothers of small children—then women will not become magically valued in the absence of this practice. This change cannot be done incrementally. It cannot be half hearted, and an immediate start would be to, as the report recommends, make it possible for mothers and fathers—and fathers—to breast and bottle feed babies in this chamber. Who knows, perhaps having some real-life babies in this building rather than just some overgrown ones might actually foster that human empathy that seems to be lacking in our leadership.

In a previous parliament, I was shouted down by a former President for pointing out that we did not allow infant children or their parents in this chamber to be on the floor in the case of a particular division. One of my colleagues, as she faced the difficulty of juggling having a small child and a ringing bell, was put in an awkward position and I raised it at the time as an absence of an inclusive workplace. At the time, I was shouted at. Indeed, by pointing out the problem you are often cast as the problem in this place.

But believe me, in the new-found conversions of those whom I have seen at the rally on Monday to see this place purged of sexism, of sexual harassment and arcane practices, to become a place that is less suited to paid-up members of The Adelaide Club and far more representative of a diverse democracy, I have seen their hypocrisy and it has felt suffocating, but at least it shows we can actually change.

Cultural change is actually quite easy to institute, even the cultural practice of sexual harassment and, yes, it is very much a practice, despite some people's insistence on believing these things to be innate. I point to two examples of the world leadership Australia has shown in reducing harm and how it is quite simple to instil different values and behaviours in the community despite them challenging the cultural norms of the time.

In 1970, the state government of Victoria introduced legislation to require the compulsory wearing of seatbelts. They were the first government in what we would call the Western world to do so. This was met with horror, but within 14 months the rest of Australia had followed suit and within seven years seatbelt wearing rates had increased to 90 per cent in our community. Who knows how many lives have been saved as a result of Victoria's then zero tolerance approach to ensuring cultural change.

Similarly, state-based campaigns to curb smoking have been enormously effective. In 1999, the South Australian parliament enforced a ban on all indoor dining areas. By 2004, amendments to the Tobacco Products Regulation Act 1997 saw smoking banned in all enclosed public places, workplaces and shared areas. Did the public love it? Not so much. At the time there was a visceral level of outrage. 'You can't ban smoking in restaurants,' they said. 'People love to smoke after a meal,' they said, but they adapted and quickly.

When smoking was banned inside pubs and clubs five years later, the response was similarly incensed but then accepted. 'You can't ban smoking in pubs,' they cried. 'People love a cigarette with a drink. You are infringing on their rights. This is a nanny state.' But they did adapt. If one were to stroll down Rundle Mall right now and pop into a coffee shop or a pub, order a drink and then light up a cigarette inside, not only would they be swiftly interrupted and told to put it out but the people around them would look on in horror because it is simply not done anymore. It was something as pervasive as sexual harassment continues to be in this place, but sexual harassment is also something that we can change with a zero tolerance approach.

I have to ask, as do many millions of women around this country, why it seems so much more impossible to adapt cultural thinking around sexual and discriminatory harassment than it does to smoking or wearing seatbelts. They cause harm. Sexual harassment and sexism causes harm. I cannot understand why one would want to perpetuate the presence of sexual harassment. It makes you scratch your head and wonder, 'Is sexual harassment that enjoyable for the perpetrators?'

The logical answer at the moment seems to be yes. If the body responsible for creating the legislation in this state includes among its number people who enjoy harming others through sexual and discriminatory harassment, then we do have a big problem but it is a problem that we can change. But I have to tell you, Mr President, it is not enjoyable for the victims and the survivors.

It was not enjoyable for me. It was never enjoyable for me, not a single one of the times when I, like so many women in this place, experienced insults or rumours. There have been cracks about karaoke. Tweets with representations of vaginas come to mind, and they are certainly not covered in this report. But the accounts in this report brought back many other instances, more minor perhaps than that. They came back into my mind as I read through these pages because these are all of our stories and the experiences in these pages are actually shared by far too many of us.

My experience is that of many of my political friends both in my own party and across the aisle. It is not enjoyable for those of us who want to go to work and to move through this world without fear of being shoved right back up against the sexist spectrum once again by men, because it is mostly men, reminding us how, in one way or another, at the end of the day, they rule the roost.

It seems at this stage that men do rule the roost in this Parliament House and the federal one. At the end of the day we are being told, either overtly or implicitly, that this house is not a place for us. A woman's place is in the house, the upper and the lower, but this is a parliament that has the least representation of women in the entire nation. While that is changing and improving, I think that has added much to the culture of this place.

I am tired and I am angry, just like the women were on Monday when they took to the streets. I am so angry at the treatment of women that some days in this place I feel it difficult to breathe. I watched how Jasmeen Kaur's body was found in the Flinders Ranges in the last two weeks, and I am angry that we see women stalked and not taken seriously. I am angry that in this house of power and legislation we see women treated with disrespect and sexism and not taken seriously.

If women who are privileged enough to work in this place, Parliament House, of all places, cannot expect to be free from or protected from this sexism and sexual harassment, where can any woman in this nation feel safe? What message are we sending to the promising young women coming up through our ranks about their prospects and what they can expect? More importantly, what message are we confirming to those promising young boys, the inheritors and often the gatekeepers of power, that will let them know just how little it belongs to them?

Indeed, it appears that this house has not been for us as women, but it is time that all women and men in political parties stop keeping the secrets of sexual harassment and sexism. Those secrets are not our shame, they are the perpetrators' shame. Whether it is in your party, in your faction or in this parliament, a woman's place is in the house and that house must be safe for all of us.

Continue Reading

Read More

Motion: Zonta Club

May 17, 2024

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: It is my absolute pleasure to support this motion that the Hon. Reggie Martin has brought before us today in support of the fine women of Zonta. Indeed, over the years I have had quite a bit to do with...

Read more

Motion: Eurovision Song Contest

May 17, 2024

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I move: That this council notes that South Australian band Electric Fields are the first duo to represent Australia at the Eurovision Song Contest and wishes them every success. It is my absolute pleasure to move this motion today that...

Read more