NSW Parliament is also a workplace - and one that is not a safe place for women

Abigail gave an adjournment speech last night calling out the toxicity of NSW Parliament as a workplace. MPs have a responsibility to not be part of the problem. We must do better. 

Abigail said:

This Parliament is not a safe place for women. No matter how many reviews we carry out, how many recommendations get handed down or how many of those recommendations are implemented or promised to be implemented, so long as there is no credible way of changing the behaviour of MPs in this place it will continue to be a toxic workplace for women and gender‑diverse people. That is because, unlike every other workplace I have worked in, none of the people I sit with in this Chamber today can be realistically removed for their poor behaviour. They are validly elected members of Parliament and, in practice, cannot be blocked from attending this place for anything other than the most serious of crimes.

An average day working in the New South Wales Parliament involves sharing the lifts with people awaiting trial or under investigation, sharing a corridor with people who are being sued over homophobic vilification and sitting for hours in a room within an arm's reach of people who hold the vilest of transphobic and misogynistic views. Let me be clear: It would not be healthy for our democracy to deny elected representatives access to parliamentary chambers, to have them unable to represent the views of those who have elected them. I am not suggesting that we should be able to more easily remove a member. However, this place serves as both a chamber of democracy and as a workplace. It is not just a workplace for MPs, but for all of those who are employed within its walls, most of them with far less power than me when it comes to improving their working conditions.

It is vital that we find a way to allow a diversity of views to be represented while also ensuring a safe workplace, because when a woman attempts to perform her role in this workplace, she has zero protection from the multitude of patently sexist slurs directed at her, let alone the host of sexist micro‑aggressions bombarding her every day from all sides of the Chamber. This is a place where a group of men can use parliamentary debate, and the cover of the parliamentary privilege that it affords them, to target and degrade a former member, and to go so far as to refer to her theoretical involvement in sexual activities. Far from calling out this behaviour, members on both sides of the Chamber instead laugh and join in, giving the debate validity and providing their implicit endorsement of this so obviously sexist and unsafe behaviour.

I had honestly thought that the culture in this place would get better with a new government and now that the Legislative Council consists of almost 50 per cent women. It would be a massive understatement to say that I am disappointed at the continuation of the sexist and degrading behaviour that marks this place and that is apparently accepted as though it is a perfectly normal day in the office. And there is nothing that can be done about it. If members were to say such things on TV or social media, they would likely find themselves facing legal action. If they were to say them within the halls of Parliament, their conduct could potentially be reviewed by the newly installed parliamentary Independent Complaints Officer. But the words said within this Chamber, or within a committee hearing, are protected by parliamentary privilege. Even if there were some valid way of holding these people to a higher standard of behaviour, there is no real sanction that can realistically be imposed.

What hope do we have of ever coming to work in this Parliament and not being constantly reminded that we are women and we are to be spoken over, belittled and sexualised? If even the self-professed left-leaning members of the Labor Party cannot recognise their role and responsibility in creating a safe workplace for women in the face of the most obvious breach of what in any other workplace would be applicable anti-discrimination laws, then what hope do we have that things will ever really change? I feel compelled to raise these points because I do not believe that they are fully understood by most commentators of parliamentary culture. By not recognising the limitations on what we can realistically do to enforce appropriate behaviour, we are preventing ourselves from taking a different and hopefully more productive approach to creating a safer workplace. In the absence of any powers to remove people for discriminatory behaviour, or the threat of any real enforcement of parliamentary standards, it will only be by setting more appropriate norms in this place that we will ever see real cultural change.

There are excellent people across this Parliament, in both Chambers and across political parties, including MPs, MPs' staff and parliamentary staff, who are committed to improving this Parliament as a workplace that is safe for everyone. But we cannot do it by ourselves. Any member of this place who considers themselves someone who wants to see this Parliament become a truly safe and inclusive place for all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or disability, has a responsibility to call out, and not indulge in, inappropriate behaviour by others. Members should join us, not be part of the problem.

Read the full transcript in Hansard here.

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