Within the past 12 months, Jacinda Ardern has resigned as New Zealand’s prime minister, former Australian PM Julia Gillard’s famous “misogyny speech” celebrated its tenth anniversary, and the high-profile retrial against Australian Liberal Party staffer Bruce Lehrmann for the alleged rape of colleague Brittany Higgins was dropped for posing a “significant and unacceptable risk” to the complainant. Across the South Pacific, there is little doubt that the long and ongoing pattern of gender discrimination and sexism paints a bleak future for women in leadership.
In January, Ardern announced her resignation after more than five years in office, citing burnout.
“I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said at her Labour Party’s annual caucus meeting. Ardern was elected in 2017 as the head of New Zealand’s Labour Party – the country’s third female PM, and one of its youngest leaders. Her leadership was defined by a series of major events: the COVID-19 pandemic; the 2019 terror attacks on two Christchurch mosques; and the Whakaari White Island disasters. Despite her initial launch into popularity – dubbed ‘Jacindamania’ – her time in Parliament was saturated with media conspiracies, sexism, and threats of violence.
Unfortunately, the scrutiny Ardern faced resonates on the other side of the Tasman Sea. Since the contentious leadership of Australia’s first, and only, female PM Julia Gillard came to an end in 2013, it’s clear that the “boys club” still has a strong hold on Parliament House.
Women in leadership
Australian director and producer Tosca Looby has said that her inspiration for the recent political documentary Strong Female Lead came from a photo of a schoolgirl holding New Zealand’s Ardern tightly by the forearms. Looby thought of the strength and trust that image translated to women and girls across New Zealand. Looking at the image prompted her to reflect on Australia’s single female prime minister.
“I thought about schoolgirls in Australia whose only connection to their female prime minister might be via caricatures of a dumpy, pointy-nosed redhead with a shrill voice,” Looby said.
Like Jacinda Ardern, Gillard was a popular candidate at the polls, receiving a satisfaction rate of +19 the week of her appointment. Interestingly, by September 2011 her rating dropped dramatically to -45. It could be argued that her decline in popularity was the result of poor policy decisions or an inability to lead the Labour government. However, polling confirms the Labour Party’s rather consistent ratings in the primary vote. More plausible is the hypothesis that Gillard’s tenure in Parliament was subject to an abhorrent slander campaign, both within and outside of Parliament, that saw public confidence in her decline.
Globally, women entering Parliament face increased aggression and harassment, primarily due to perceptions of politics as a male-dominated domain, and the repercussions often dissuade women from entering politics. In a survey conducted after Gillard’s term as PM, 60% of women aged 18-21 and 80% of women over the age of 31 stated that they were less likely to run for political roles after seeing the negative treatment Gillard faced by the media.
In 1997 Australia was ranked 27th globally by the Inter-Parliamentary Union for women in national parliaments. By 2022, that ranking had dropped to 57th. This stark imbalance serves to support the notion that Australia’s political and legal culture doesn’t endorse, and perhaps alienates, women in leadership roles.
Gendered discrimination and abuse in Parliament
Australian columnist Anne Summers’ speech “Her Rights At Work” details the extent of abuse and vitriol Gillard faced during her three years of tenure, and posits that in any other workplace, Gillard would be protected as a worker by anti-discrimination laws.
Section 5(1) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) defines sex discrimination, as where “the discriminator treats the aggrieved person less favourably than, in circumstances that are the same or are not materially different, the discriminator would treat a person of a different sex”.
When compared to the national framework, Gillard’s treatment by other parliamentarians in the capacity of her role is nothing short of discriminatory behaviour. In Parliament House, it isn’t uncommon for Question Time, a daily public-access panel held in the House of Representatives, to get argumentative. Over the duration of Gillard’s tenure, she engaged in countless policy debates with Opposition ministers. However, Gillard was often rebutting sexist insults and gendered stereotypes as opposed to legislative matters, many of which were tactically used to undermine her substantive discussions. Summers’ essay outlines countless instances of bullying, sexism and discrimination that Gillard faced, which fall short of national antidiscrimination laws due to a constitutional parliamentary privilege awarded to members of the Cabinet. However, as Summers suggests, in any non-parliamentary role, Gillard would have more than reasonable grounds for relief under anti-discrimination laws.
This discourse is not limited to those holding the top seat; a 2021 report which surveyed more than 1,000 current and former employees in the Australian parliament found that one in three employees have experienced sexual harassment. In 2020 the Four Corners TV episode “Inside the Canberra Bubble” unravelled a long history of sexism, harassment and disrespect towards women in Parliament. Featuring several prominent female parliamentarians, the episode exposed sexual misconduct, workplace affairs, assault, and misogynistic behaviours.
Realistically, an imbalance of power in Parliament House is difficult to deny when a “bonk ban” has to be enforced on parliamentarians to stop them from having sexual relations with their staff.
It’s not just inside the House
Australia’s political media echoes the favoured attitudes in Parliament, and media commentators revelled in discussing Gillard’s appearance, her body, and her gender. One comparative study found that 58% of news articles discussed her femininity, whilst 47% mentioned or focused on aspects of her body or gender identity. Journalists focused on her marital status, her childlessness, her partner, and his sexuality. Before her appointment, Liberal minister Bill Heffernan told an Australian magazine that Gillard was unfit for leadership because she was “deliberately barren”. Former cartoonist for The Australian, Larry Pickering, launched a media tirade against Gillard, sending daily emails to every member of the Federal Parliament containing vile, sexist commentary of Gillard, accompanied by demeaning cartoon illustrations of her. In 2011, the sitcom television series “At Home with Julia”, aired on ABC. The show was a fictionalised depiction of Gillard’s life in the prime minister’s residence and is littered with sexist tropes. Featuring other high-profile ministers, the show reflects the epidemic of “personality politics” that conflates politicians with celebrity in a way that further damaged Gillard’s public standing.
In office, Gillard often faced public threats of violence, including death and rape threats. Coverage of the 2011 anti-carbon tax riots showcased signs stating “ditch the witch”, and Sydney news commentator Alan Jones’ infamous broadcast referred to her as a “lying bitch”, and suggested throwing her “out to sea in a chaff bag”. Upon the death of Gillard’s father, Alan Jones alleged that her father had “died of shame” – an insult that was later used by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Even Gillard’s now famous misogyny speech was ridiculed by media commentators who failed to scrutinise Abbott’s incendiary remarks before her outburst.
This nature of political media coverage hasn’t died with age; many female ministers continue to face distasteful media portrayals. New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian’s choice of jacket became a guessing game during daily COVID-19 press briefings, and radio presenter Jeremy Cordeaux referred to rape victim Brittany Higgins as “a silly little girl who got drunk”. Ardern herself didn’t make it one day into the role before being asked by a news host whether she had to “make a choice between having babies and having a career”.
With an abundance of documented evidence that arguably satisfies the threshold for equitable discrimination on the basis of sex, this cultural epidemic within the Australian Parliament appears largely unaddressed.
Extensive cultural and political dialogues have ensued since Gillard’s term in office, and workplace gender equality has gradually shifted to the forefront of public consciousness. In 2018, Liberal minister Julia Banks left parliament, blaming the “scourge of cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation”, and was joined by several other female Liberal members. With the production of exposé documentaries and public testimonies from MPs, the cultural standard enabled in Parliament has become increasingly clear.
In the “Set the Standard” report released in 2021, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins described Parliament House as something that “Australians look to with pride”. The report identified several drivers for misconduct in Parliament and set out a multidisciplinary strategy to combat inequality in parliamentary workplaces, including substantial reforms to promote accountability, ethical conduct, and transparency. The report made 28 recommendations for change, including a statement of acknowledgement from parliamentary leaders, strategies to increase gender balance and professionalism in management practices.
With this, a model of conduct is proposed to specifically address sexual misconduct, discriminatory behaviour, and exclusion. However, these recommendations are just that; without affirmative action by the Parliament, the recommendations cannot be enforced. Until a female leader can be elected to Parliament without accepting the prerequisite of sexist hostility, media scrutiny, and threats of misogyny-driven violence, resignations will continue, girls and women will continue to be deterred from political roles, and the culture behind Parliament House will remain intact.
Chloe Menzies is a third-year law student at Newcastle Law School in Newcastle, Australia.
Suggested citation: Chloe Menzies, The Call is Coming from Inside the House: Sex Discrimination in Australia’s Parliament , JURIST – Student Commentary, February 3, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/02/the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house-sex-discrimination-in-australias-parliament/ .