Parliamentary Behaviour

By Matt Keogh MP

22 March 2021

Watch Matt's speech here

I'm a bloke—and a white bloke at that—so in making this speech tonight I am wading into territory that some men dare not tread. The point I wish to address tonight though is culture. The nub of it is this: we can have all the new well-intended institutions in the world but none of them in and of themselves will change any of the things that we're concerned about with behaviour in this building or by politicians and staff, let alone in any other workplace for that matter, if we don't change the culture.

Prior to the honour of being elected to this place I worked for a decade as a lawyer. I worked in the private sector and in the public sector. I worked in a tiny firm and one of the world's biggest firms. It is certainly the case that junior lawyers, mainly women, have been harassed, sexually harassed, bullied and worse in the workplace—often by colleagues or their superiors—and have not taken any action about it because they feared for their careers. I'm not so naive to think that these issues have been resolved in the legal profession or in any other sectors, but in the non-political sectors action has been taken. Admittedly, some of this was driven by lawsuits, which has focused the minds of HR departments into mandating appropriate training.

To date the discussions here, however, have focused on the establishment of inquiries and new independent structures to enable better reporting of offending and inappropriate behaviour. My first response to this was frustration. Not only is there already an independent body established to deal with matters such as those alleged by Ms Higgins—the police—but also it has specialist units to assist victims in making formal statements, to refer them for support and to proceed to prosecutions. While such units could be improved, they do already exist. So what would establishing a new body achieve if people aren't prepared to use what is already there?

The fundamental issue here is the need for cultural change as well, because, if you are a staffer with political ambition or one who would just like to make the jump from electorate officer to ministerial staffer, you don't want to be seen to rock the boat, cause political embarrassment or get caught up in legal cases. If you are an MP with some staff who have an issue with you or an MP with staff who have issues between themselves, you don't want that exploding into the light of day. If you are an MP who is being harassed by staff, a party official or another MP, you certainly don't want to be perceived as weak.

Our political culture in Australia militates against encouraging staff or MPs to come forward, to take appropriate action against perpetrators and to stand up and say some behaviour is just not acceptable. So what truly needs to change, in addition to inquiries, new structures and bodies, is culture. We need a political culture that says that, if you are an MP or staffer who is the victim of inappropriate behaviour, harassment, sexual harassment or assault, not only will you be believed but you will be supported. We need a culture where victims feel that the powers that be will be on their side and they won't suffer negative employment and career repercussions.

Cultural change is much harder than just creating new bodies. Cultural change requires training, retraining, better preselection and hiring practices, and commitment by those at the top not just in words but in observable action in dealing with matters appropriately when they are raised, believing victims, making appropriate inquiries, taking properly into account the victim's wishes while also not letting offending go undealt with, and weeding out anyone who allows for a boys club that does what it wants where it wants and when it wants.

Right now, however, almost the opposite happens. MPs and their staff come from all different backgrounds. Some have managed large organisations. Some have directly managed staff in their past—some on their own and others with the support of large HR departments. Some MPs—some of the best; some less reconstructed—come here with no experience of managing staff and with no prior training on appropriate behaviours and how to deal with and respond to allegations. Yet there is no training provided to MPs on induction and no ongoing training on these issues and there is no training required of staff who supervise others. I don't have a silver bullet for cultural change. If there was one, nobody would be buying the hundreds of books out there on the topic. If we did have a silver bullet for it, there would be no family and domestic violence, no racism and no discrimination. But politics must be about what is needed, not just what is easy.

In this way, it is good to see that the new ALP national policy for sexual harassment prevention and response includes a requirement for training for MPs, elected officials and staff as well as a register of who has received it. The House and Senate would be well advised to incorporate this into formal MP and senator induction processes. Yes, changing this culture across politics will require a fundamental rethink of how parties, politics and the parliament fundamentally operate, but for the sake of our nation and the lives of those involved in its politics we must do it.