Taking the lead

It is difficult to keep ahead of federal parliament’s cascade of scandals. Even for the prime minister, who has been dragged into this fray he so desperately wanted to keep at arm’s length.

He is visibly flustered; perhaps he truly did not realise the rot went so deep.

But ignorance is not an excuse, not for a leader of a country.

Something is broken in our nation’s centre of power. The picture that has emerged from Canberra in recent weeks is that of a deeply abusive environment.

It is a workplace where women are routinely degraded, sidelined, spoken over, excluded, bullied and harassed. In this though, parliament is representative of the country at large, in a way it rarely is.

With the prime minister finally admitting there is a problem – a problem he says he did not understand until this reckoning sparked by Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape – focus has turned to solutions.

Could quotas to bring more women into parliament change the misogynistic culture that has tacitly approved the behaviour that has so scandalised the country? Maybe.

A critical mass of women may shift the power dynamics of that place. But quotas will not be the end of behaviours that are ingrained in Australian culture – a culture that elevates the voices of men, defers to the intelligence of men and has a conception of leadership that is decidedly male.

Could training teach men in parliament that bullying, harassing and abusing their colleagues is unacceptable? Perhaps.

Education is important and can change behaviours. But it is worth asking how these men – our country’s “best and brightest” – could rise to these positions of power without ever needing to learn this?

In the end, in our politics and our nation, behavioural change needs to be modelled by our leaders.

There is no point in Scott Morrison saying his government has a zero tolerance of abusive behaviour if this policy is not enforced when it is politically inconvenient.

There is no value in the prime minister encouraging women to speak up – and establishing a workplace inquiry that requires them to do so – if he is only going to stand up at a press conference and tell the entire country of a woman’s private harassment complaint.

It doesn’t matter if he got the details of the complaint wrong, his disregard for women’s privacy was already made clear to every woman watching. So much damage already done.

Ignorance is not an excuse, not least for a leader of a country.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 27, 2021 as "Taking the lead".

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