Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame at the National Press Club
February 10 2022
They were riveting watching on 9 February.
Brittany Higgins talked about a toxic culture in Parliament House with sexual harassment, and Grace Tame was careful to define her area of activism as action to stop paedophiles. Grace was quite insistent that this was not a gender war as she said that most of the people she met until relatively late in her journey of discovery were men, as it seems that more males had come out to discuss their grooming process than females. It is about the behaviour, not about gender, though she conceded that most perpetrators were male. She noted that her perpetrator had a known history (covered up) of abusing students and she was only one of his many victims. Grace made no secret of her view that Morrison had done as little as possible, but when a question from a Murdoch journalist tried to get her to support Labor against the Liberals she declined to be drawn. She said that the existing power structures of the Parliament, the law and the media protected paedophiles. She also said that when she criticised the Prime Minister there was an inquiry as to the funding of the Council that awarded the Australian of the Year honour. She took this to be a hint that they had to find one who was not critical of the government. She also described a caller who was “asking for my word that I would not say anything damning about the Prime Minister on the evening of the next Australian of the Year awards”.
“‘You are an influential person. He will have a fear,’ they said. What kind of fear, I asked myself?”
“And then I heard the words ‘with an election coming soon’.
“And it crystallised — a fear for himself and no-one else, a fear that he might lose his position or, more to the point, his power.”
Grace did not say who it was that called her, and declined to answer a question on the subject. Now the Prime Minister himself wants to know. Ho hum. Obviously someone was trying to protect him. Is this person to be hung out?
Brittany Higgins was unimpressed by the Parliamentary apology for the sexual harassment except as a first step and commented that the plan to deal with sexual harassment has a great statement of intentions, but these are so vague as to be able to be accepted by everyone, but not actually to specify any action, much less a time frame for such action. Another highly relevant comment she made in terms of the working of Parliament was the relationship between the minders and the public service, with a huge increase in the power of the minders despite their lack of worldly experience or knowledge and the corresponding downgrading of the influence of the public service, who of course should be a big reservoir of politically unbiased expertise. She said that the public were unaware of the power relationships of minders and this was a problem. She was speaking more broadly than merely of sexual relationships.
As a person particularly interested in prevention, I think that the environment and pressures on individuals makes a huge difference to their decisions. I first figured this out in boarding school where behaviour options were decidedly constrained, then observed it as people were pressured to take up smoking. Social disadvantage and crime also stand out.
My state government minder gave me his opinion that if you went to Canberra it took about 18 months to lose all contact with real people and their issues as the Canberra bubble of politicians and the media were so isolated and both used each other as reality contact. He went on to prove his own theory, as he went to Canberra to work with Meg Lees, Democrat leader, was there about 18 months and believed that she would beat Natasha Stott-Despoja in the leadership spill after Lees had enabled Howard to pass the GST. Natasha won with 76% of the vote. As an MP I went to a Young Democrats Conference in Canberra and was invited to a party that they were all going to with some of their friends who happened to be young Liberal staffers. No one took much notice of the old guy in the corner, but I could not help but overhear the stories of their tactical victories over Labor. Everything was entirely binary. The object was to win, which was to get ‘our’ agenda passed. It was exciting, a chess game, and at no stage was there the slightest discussion of any policy or the need for discussion or compromise. My overwhelming impression was that these folk had far too much power and far too little knowledge for the national good. I think there are 3 stages of knowledge; those that know, those that don’t know, and those that don’t know that they don’t know; those kids were in a last stage. (Later I added a 4th category, those who do not want to know and will actively resist knowing; this class being such as anti-vaxxers, religious folk and political ideologues).
I am also of the view that structure governs function. If you wanted a Parliament that was out of touch, you would put it in a place isolated from the people (say Canberra), in a very secure building (say Parliament House) with excellent facilities in each room so that you did not need to meet anyone but your own. You would isolate them from their families, have unusual domestic arrangements, then have pressure situations where they worked long and emotionally exhausting hours so that they relied very much on their work colleagues. Added to this there are male/female, age and power imbalances. All this leads to a situation conducive to frenetic relationships with sexual harassment and marriage breakdowns. Add a hierarchical binary system with winner takes all with a surfeit of powerful lobby groups and you get bad political decisions as well.
You may be able to fix one aspect of a dysfunctional system if you try very hard, but my view is that a Swiss-style democracy with multiple parties that have to compromise, part-time politicians limited to two terms so that they are not in a personal hierarchy and referenda where citizens can overrule the Parliament with plebiscites would seem to be likely to fix sexual harassment as well as a lot of other things.