NSW Upper House to finally look into racism and sexism in the chamber

Today in Parliament, Abigail successfully passed a motion requiring the Procedure Committee to review the Standing Orders in relation to sexism and racism.

Abigail said: I move:

(1) That this House notes that recommendation 3.5 of the Independent Review of Bullying, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct in NSW Parliamentary Workplaces 2022 stated that members should "lead discussion on updating the standing orders to require respectful behaviour in both Houses, particularly as they relate to sexism and racism".

(2) That the Procedure Committee inquire into and report on updating the standing orders to require respectful behaviour in the Chamber, particularly as they relate to sexism and racism.

Over at least the past few years a number of MPs from across the political spectrum, along with staff representing various roles within the parliamentary precinct, have been working together in an effort to make the New South Wales Parliament an inclusive and safe place for all people, regardless of gender, race, disability or sexual orientation. The Broderick report was a watershed moment for this Parliament. That report collated the experiences of people from across Parliament and highlighted very serious issues that were preventing this institution from being a safe and inclusive workplace and a place that a diverse group of people would want to work at, including as a member of Parliament. The Broderick report laid out a series of important recommendations to be implemented to turn things around, to make this place better and, in turn, to strengthen democratic participation in New South Wales.

When the report was released, leaders of both the then Coalition Government as well as the then Labor Opposition gave their support to the report and its recommendations. There was, of course, support also from The Greens, the Animal Justice Party and other Independents. Those who opposed the report's recommendations were a very small minority. It was widely acknowledged that the prejudices and biases that exist outside of politics do, of course, also exist within politics; that no political party is immune from sexism, racism and other prejudices; and that we have a collective responsibility to do better. Unfortunately, that was August 2022, and it is now February 2024. Very little has changed in Parliament during that time.

The change in government and Presiding Officers can be pointed to as one of the reasons for the delay. However, the delays to the recommendations that fall to us as members of Parliament to implement are on us. We had the whole of last year, after Parliament resumed in May, to look at what we could do to clean up unacceptable behaviour in Parliament, and we failed. The new Labor Government got off to a relatively good start in terms of the tone it set against sexist and homophobic behaviour in particular, but by the end of last year this House was back to its old tricks with both blatant and more subtle forms of sexism, homophobia and racism on full display—not to mention the transphobia that unfortunately goes beyond the far-right crossbench in this place.

Broderick tasked us with cleaning up this behaviour with a clear recommendation. Recommendation 3.5 stated that members should lead discussion on updating the standing orders to "require respectful behaviour in both Houses, particularly as they relate to sexism and racism". In frustration, and in the face of both major parties enabling sexist behaviour in the Chamber, I attempted to move this motion at the end of last year. I was devastated but unfortunately not surprised when it was voted down. But this is a new year and it appears there is now appetite for a reset. I was fortunate at the beginning of the year to spend time in the United Kingdom with MPs, parliamentary staff and members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association [CPA], talking about the way in which standards of behaviour are enforced in various parliaments across the Commonwealth.

People were shocked by how behind the times the New South Wales Parliament really is. In fact, we are noncompliant under the CPA's Gender Sensitising Parliaments Guidelines in a number of significant respects. That will be deeply embarrassing for us in November when we host the CPA global conference. The world is watching, and we are failing. It is not easy to strike the right balance between allowing freedom of speech and the right to speak on behalf of our constituents—to ensure that those voices are heard in our democracy—on the one hand, and on the other hand ensuring a respectful workplace in which people from across our community feel safe to represent their constituents and participate in our democracy. But the New South Wales upper House is not even close to finding the right balance. Thankfully we can take notes on many other jurisdictions. With a Procedure Committee inquiry, we have the opportunity to harness that information, process it and work together to come up with a better way of doing things.

This is not a party political issue; this is a workplace safety issue. The behaviour that members are subjected to in this place, the behaviour that is witnessed by those working in the Chamber as employees of Parliament, and the behaviour that those who work as staffers must observe is toxic. With the Respect at Work reforms now implemented, we are putting parliamentary management in a very difficult position by not reforming the way we do things. In every workplace in Australia, businesses must take a preventative, proactive approach to eliminate or minimise the risk of sexual harassment and other psychosocial hazards, and the same applies to this Parliament.

But in this Chamber, parliamentary privilege enables members to say whatever they like and hurl whatever abuse they like at other members without legal consequence, which butts up against our workplace safety responsibilities. The moment members step into this Chamber—which is our workplace for numerous hours each sitting day—or into a committee room, we no longer have workplace protections against discrimination, harassment and bullying that we would have in any other workplace in our State. That needs to change, and I know the majority of members in this place feel the same way. I look forward to working with them as we chart another way forward.

 

After members contributed to the debate, in reply Abigail said:

In reply: I thank all members for their contributions to the debate on the motion. In response, I start with the contribution from the Hon. Mark Banasiak, to which I say that this isn't about him. I understand that an article was written about this issue last week and that that article mentioned, as just one example of sexist behaviour in the Chamber, the contributions from the Hon. Mark Banasiak to a particular motion last year. That was one example of inappropriate behaviour but unfortunately the sexism in this place goes far deeper than that. Take, for example, the Hon. Mark Latham's obsession with my experiences of child sexual assault. Rather than being able or willing to intellectually engage with the substance of my proposal, we have yet another example of instead making comments directed to the characteristics of the person putting forward the proposal.

That is a particularly egregious form of sexism—the idea that if someone has been the victim of sexual assault at some point, then they cannot be taken seriously on an issue without their motivations and sanity being questioned in the process. What a double whammy that is. Not only do women who have been the victims of sexual assault have to battle against victim blaming and all the other barriers to justice, apparently forever more they will be subjected to characterisations of them being inhibited in their abilities to do their jobs because of their victim-survivor status. That is misogyny.

Once again, we have another example of the Hon. Mark Latham proving my points for me. Those comments and this sort of behaviour directed against a colleague in one's workplace would never be accepted in any other workplace in Australia. They would not just be called out but they would be actionable under laws designed to keep our workplaces safe. But here in this Chamber, they result in no real consequence. During debate members mentioned the number of complaints to the Independent Complaints Officer since that role was established but left out was the fact that the ICO's remit only applies to words said outside of this Chamber. Again, that is the point here.

This motion, and the recommendation it is based on, is not intended to curb spirited debate in this place. It is not intended to stop the banter or even reduce the noise levels. It is intended to stop those sexist and racist comments and behaviours that prevent this place from being an inclusive and safe workplace for everyone. This is not about me and it is certainly not about the Hon. Mark Banasiak; it is about the welfare of every person who works in this environment in whatever capacity, for this cohort of members, for future members and for all staff in this place. Whether or not this referral results in changes to the standing orders, change will only really happen when we take active steps together to change the culture of this place. It is the very act of coming together and deciding to progress this issue that will begin to erode the culture of impunity that exists in this place. I encourage everyone to think about what small actions they can do every day to help chip away at this harmful culture to reveal a progressive and modern Parliament.

 

The motion passed with support from across parties. 

To read the full debate, read Hansard here and here.

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