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Rage and despair: how the culture of parliament follows women after they leave | Australia news

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It should have been easy: speak to the women who have left politics in recent years, across parties and roles, about their experiences and the culture they encountered in the federal parliament.

After all, they got out. There has to be reasons. Insights. A freedom to finally say what they feel.

“I’m so sorry, I just can’t. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about it, and I just don’t feel like I can deal with all the messages and phone calls and all that. I’m just trying to get by,” one said.

It’s not unusual for women to remain quiet, even as their own story is being hijacked. Silence is written into history and fables as a cautionary tale. Consider Medusa. Most know her as a monster, capable of turning men to stone with a look. Forgotten by most is that Medusa was once another promising young woman, until she was raped by a god and turned into gorgon by her patron goddess, incensed at the desecration of her temple. Even in her scarred form, Medusa was allowed no voice. She was slayed in her sleep, her sightless gaze then used by the man who killed her to take out his own enemies.

In ancient Greece, as in now, “cancel culture” concerned itself more with the impact on the accused than the accuser. More often than not, men emerged as heroes. Women, vengeful monsters to be silenced.

It’s a lesson which has been learned well.

It wasn’t that the women who declined to go on the record had nothing to say. In fact they had plenty. It poured out in a geyser of suppressed rage and despair. The staffer who had been asked by a colleague “whose dick did you suck to get here?” The woman who spent her time in Canberra drinking soda and lime, pretending it contained vodka to avoid male colleagues attempting to ply her with more alcohol than she could handle. The touches, the dismissals. The woman who asked her senior female colleagues how they dealt with it and was told to just “keep your head down and play the long game”. The never being heard. The never being listened to. The never being taken seriously.

Julia Gillard, as prime minister, gives her famous ‘misogyny speech’ during question time. In her time in Australia’s top job she was maligned as a ‘menopausal monster’ and ‘political slut’. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

“The constant feeling that whatever you did, it didn’t matter, because a man was always, always going to get ahead in front of you. There’s a pecking order, and we’re always on the bottom – even when we’re at the top,” one woman said.

They all had plenty to say. But the culture they had left, or in some cases, fled, isn’t hemmed in by the boundaries of Parliament House. It has followed them into their new lives. Their businesses and jobs, their connections and in some cases, their mental health, in some way or another, still depend on staying quiet.

“I’d love to tell you what really went on, I really would. But I can only offer background. I’m just starting to get to a place where it’s all starting not to matter. I’m tired to be honest, and I’ve spent these last couple of weeks crying as I’m hearing all of the news out of that place, and I don’t want any of that attention from any of them any more. It’s like every time any woman pops their head up in that place, a bunch of men rush to push it back down,” another said via phone.

The culture the women spoke about – and no matter which political party the woman was, or in some cases, still are, aligned to, the culture they spoke of was the same.

“It was the gaslighting for me. It got to the point where I was leaving work everyday questioning my own contributions and worth. It’s not like you get shouted down, or outright ignored. But there are a lot of swinging dicks in that place and if you’re not one of them, it is very, very clear that you will never rise as high as them,’” one former staffer said.

“It’s not like you recognise it straight away, or at least I didn’t. You’re not thrown into the boiling water. You just wake up one day and notice you’ve given little bits of yourself away and the water is close to boiling and you can either hope it calms down, or jump out.”

Out of the more than a dozen former staffers and MPs Guardian Australia spoke to, just one, Emma Husar, would go on the record.

Husar is frank when talking about her “slut shaming”, a phrase she is no longer afraid of using to explain the events which led to her exit from politics in 2019, after just one term as an MP. Husar, new to the political world, found herself at the centre of a maelstrom when BuzzFeed reported allegations including that she had engaged in lewd conduct. An independent investigation found no merit to the claims of lewd conduct which Husar, and a reported witness had always denied. Although the review did find cause for further investigation into other allegations of misuse of public entitlements and complaints from staff about their treatment.

By then Husar had already announced she would not contest the next election. She later sued the publication for defamation and settled out of court. But years later, Husar has struggled. Search her name in Google, and that time is relegated to the third page. But it’s still impacting her everyday life, as she attempts to find work and rebuild her life.

It’s been slow going.

First she had to find a lawyer to represent her, not an easy feat given the far-reaching tentacles of politics. There was the firm that worried about potential consequences (missing out on work) for when Labor was in government. The one which didn’t want to annoy its Labor-aligned clients. And the one who said it was simply too big to take on. The “rule of law” remedies only exist for those who can access them. And many find that the first battle.

“It doesn’t stop,” Husar said.

“You don’t just leave politics and have life return to normal. It follows you, and so if you leave like I did, it means you have to fight harder to overcome it.”

Husar has spent a lot of the last couple of years thinking about political culture, particularly what she saw in federal politics. The last few weeks have been particularly rough as she watches leaders of all sides struggle to respond to allegations of sexual violence and a suppressive environment that appears particularly hostile to women.

Emma Husar
‘It’s not just one thing, there’s all these pieces for women … factions, preselections, family responsibilities, our vulnerabilities preyed on, boys’ club, culture, drinking,’ former federal MP, Emma Husar says. Photograph: Peter Rae/AAP

She thinks it’s because women enter at a disadvantage – many are there because of male sponsors or champions. Men got them the job, or tapped them on the shoulder for preselection, or pushed them forward for promotion. The power structures are still dominated by men from the top down, and the women who have made it know they owe their position to at least one of them.

“And the men know the rules because they wrote the rules,” she said.

Husar, speaking of the Labor experience, said women tended to be at a disadvantage before they even thought about preselection or a senior staffing role. Many had taken time off to raise children, meaning their male peers usually ascend through the power structures ahead of them. By the time women return, the game has changed.

“The blokes tend to get in, stay in, wield that power around and continue their ascension,” Husar said.

“And when you get there, it’s at the request of men,” she added, detailing the men who guided her own preselection. There were three before she reached former leader Bill Shorten.

“So blokes did me the favour by allowing me a seat at the table. But then I am, I guess, in part indebted to be loyal to them. And have a sense of well, ‘I trust them’. There is a false sense of safety.

“So yeah, we’re there because of the men that allow us to be there.”

Women tend to be given the preselection tap for marginal seats too, across both major parties, which means those women don’t have the time “to play politics” as Husar calls it, because they are too busy trying to keep the electorate in party hands.

That insecurity means those women are usually passed over for promotion within the party too – you don’t have time to take on leadership roles, when you’re attending four community meetings, a fete and a neighbourhood festival in the same day, while trying to sort out constituents’ NDIS and visa issues.

“We’re too fucking busy to play politics,” Husar said.

Female members of the Labor party gather for International Women’s Day.
Female members of the Labor party gather for International Women’s Day. Women hold less than 25% of seats (14) in the Liberal party, while Labor is closer to parity with 47% of its parliamentary representation being women. Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

“I think that points to the culture, I think that’s a massive, massive part of it – it’s not just one thing, like, there’s all these pieces for women – it’s like a puzzle. There are all these moving parts, but when you put it all together, you know, you could actually literally label them. You can see it – factions, preselections, family responsibilities, our vulnerabilities preyed on, boys’ club, culture, drinking.

“It’s not a rite of passage for us to just serve our country [like it is for the men]. It’s a battle. And the men are like – ‘we opened the door for you, so you owe us’.”

It’s a similar issue for female staffers. They don’t tend to have the same power networks as the men at a university and feeder (like the unions, business groups) so enter at a disadvantage. Women who take time away from work to raise children come back to see male colleagues promoted, or well on their way to their own preselections, as they haven’t taken the same time – even if they have kids. They’re more able to drop everything and fly around the country with a minister, and often know many of the same people – mentors abound for the men, but have to be sought out by women.

Julie bishop holding high heeled red shoes
Former Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop and her red shoes, which are enshrined in the museum of modern democracy as a symbol of female rebellion. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Julia Gillard’s story as Australia’s first female prime minister is perhaps one of the most extreme, public, examples of what it is like to be a woman in politics. Maligned as a “menopausal monster” and “political slut”, subjected to ridicule through mock menus dissecting her body, and opponents who saw nothing wrong standing under “ditch the witch” and “Ju-liar, Bob Brown’s bitch” signs – and were ultimately rewarded at the ballot box – the abuse Gillard experienced carries with it a legacy her successors are uncomfortably familiar with.

No one spoke up then. And they don’t now.

Including the women at the centre of it. Julie Bishop’s red shoes may be enshrined in the museum of modern democracy as a symbol of female rebellion in the face of faceless numbers men who work to keep women out of the top jobs, but it wasn’t until she left Capital Hill that she found some of her voice.

“If we don’t change as a result of the last few weeks … then what will it take,” said the former deputy leader of the Liberal party at an industry event last week.

At a recent International Women’s Day event, the minister for women, Marise Payne obliquely referenced the last few weeks of turmoil.

“As a workplace, the national parliament is starkly, clearly not immune from these sorts of issues that have impacted workplaces around our country and, frankly, around the world for too long,” she said.

“But it has to change. It must change. And the only way it will change is if we, as parliamentarians, own the problems, own the failings, and make the necessary changes ourselves. By its nature, the parliament is a highly politicised workplace, but I do know that the political system has the capacity to work together to address this issue and these challenges. And we will. And we cannot wait.”

For those who have been there, the words rang hollow.

“Marise Payne has been in that parliament almost as long as Claire Chandler [the Liberal party’s youngest female senator] has been alive,” one woman said.

“It’s not like these are new challenges.”

This Friday will mark the centenary of Edith Cowan’s election to the Western Australian legislature – the first woman elected to an Australian parliament. Cowan was verbally abused on the hustings and couldn’t even get through her first speech without interjections – a massive departure from convention, even then. Cowan held her seat for just one term, in large part, because she disagreed with many of the positions the men in her party took on policy. She made history, and the $50 note for her troubles.

But what really changed? Women still report high levels of abuse. Women are rarely elevated to leadership roles. From the party rooms to the staffer meeting rooms, women report watching their ideas ignored, or taken over by men. One hundred years later, and women hold less than 25% of seats (14) in the Liberal party. There are just six women in the 21-strong Nationals party room. Labor is closer to parity with 47% of its parliamentary representation being women – but since Gillard, none have come close to securing enough votes for the leadership.

Still, women are beginning to stir in and out of the Australian parliament.

But the battle for change seems long, and will ultimately rest on the willingness of men to face up to it. Then enact it. And as the women who still can’t speak publicly privately testify, there’s not too many men in the parliament willing to cede the space to make it happen. Happy International Women’s Day.

  • In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. International helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.

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