We can't trust politicians to set their own standards
Eradicating bullying in politics requires transparency and accountability
By James Tonson, Rescope Project Facilitator of Democracy Programs
It’s becoming clear that politicians and political parties are not capable of setting and maintaining respectable standards of behaviour. This is preventing women (and probably some men too) from serving in parliament and arguably playing a significant part in undermining parliament’s ability to implement policy on big issues such as climate change and equal marriage.
While the Liberal party’s recent antics have placed them front and centre on this, stories from the last few weeks show that bullying and harassment are problems across the political spectrum and the parties’ processes for dealing with them are inadequate. Here’s a quick summary:
Liberal MP Julia Banks announced that she is not going to recontest the next election due to the bullying and intimidation she’d experienced. The Liberals appear to have no clear process for people to raise issues of this kind. Some Liberals suggest the Whip’s Office, others the MP’s state party president. Bullying was also sighted by Ann Sudamalis as part of the reasons she decided not to recontest her seat.
The appearance of Emma Husar on 7.30 revealed how badly she’d been treated by the Labor party. While she admitted she’s not perfect, she was exonerated of most allegations made against her. However she is leaving parliament because her reputation has been trashed by the leaking of false allegations by her colleagues. The Labor party investigated the allegations but hasn’t made the findings public or held anyone responsible for the leaks.
A number of women in the Greens have alleged that the party mishandled complaints. This prompted former Green’s staffer Liz Ingram to surface as the complainant in the settlement reached with former Victorian Green’s leader Greg Barber. While he resigned from parliament the settlement details remain confidential. The lack of a clear public account of the wrong-doing conceded means that this case doesn’t serve to help set a standard for others or act as a specific deterrent.
The National Party finalised its investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment made against Barnaby Joyce but it didn’t reach any conclusions. Catherine Marriott's story succinctly shows just how inadequate their processes were. She is to be commended for her work to change their processes but we're yet to see if they can be implemented effectively.
While these processes might differ in degree of inadequacy I don’t think any of them serve to help to eradicate bullying or harassment in politics.
Perpetrators need to be accountable to the public, and their actions need to be made transparent so that others can see what isn’t appropriate. Overtime this will establish a set of standards that reflect community expectations.
The privacy of victims can be protected, while we expose bullies. Complainants are often motivated by wanting to make sure others don’t suffer the same way. So processes need to reflect this intent.
Emma Husar’s case reminds us that the victim can also be the one being complained about. So the processes need to be robust, kept private until findings are reached, and conducted by people who are clearly independent of any political motivation.
This is why political parties cannot be trusted to handle these matters. Political parties by their very nature attract people who seek to impose their will on others. So it’s unreasonable to expect party structures to be capable of holding such people to account.
Senator Lucy Guchihi has called for a process to deal with allegations of bullying and harassment that is independent of the political parties. It could operate like the process for managing parliamentary entitlements, which is independent of the government of the day. It could establish behavioural standards informed by community expectations, and be open to complaints by MPs, senators, staffers and others. Is it beyond us as a nation to have such a process? Is it beyond our politicians to agree on implementing it?
We could also make politicians behaviour more transparent to the public by bringing citizens into parliamentary processes. At a Rescope forum I hosted in February Mary Crooks, CEO of the Victorian Women’s Trust suggested that we should include ordinary citizens on parliamentary committees. These are established to investigate particular issues and formulate policy ideas. They could include citizens with relevant expertise chosen by application, or simply everyday Australians chosen by ballot like a citizens jury. This would bring politicians into direct contact with citizens’ expectations of behaviour, as well as add more diversity to the political process and improve citizens’ understanding of the political process. It has real potential to improve behaviour, processes and policy outcomes.
Perhaps we could do something similar with Question Time. The bullying and harassment that goes on there is clearly out of step with public expectations. Its defenders argue it is a core pillar of the Westminster tradition for holding ministers and governments to account and it is still effective at times. Could we improve it by enabling citizens to ask questions directly? Citizen questions could be selected using online polling and replace the ‘dorothy-dixers’ asked by government back-benchers. This would retain the questions put by opposition and cross bench MPs, preserving their sustained focus in probing specific issues. The presence of non-party-political citizens would act as an incentive for improved parliamentary behaviour.
No doubt there are other ways we could improve transparency and accountability in politics. Whether we use independent authorities or direct citizen engagement or something else we need to acknowledge that political parties are structurally incapable of self-regulating their own behaviour.
This issue goes beyond one party and beyond the inclusion of women in politics, though this is also important in its own right. The culture of political antagonism undermines good governance and sets a poor example for the norms of behaviour we expect in wider society.
Treating with respect those who we disagree with, or are different from, is a fundamental tenet of democracy. We need to remind our politicians how to do it.