This post is prompted by the current situation in federal politics, particularly by the action of Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal staffer in federal Parliament, who has reported that she was raped by a more senior colleague in Parliament in 2019. This happened shortly before the federal election. Ms Higgins suggests there was subsequently pressure on her not to take further action and to cover up the rape. There have since been other complaints and allegations about politicians, some of a very serious nature.
The media coverage and discussion on twitter has raised issues for me relating to my own experiences in politics. I've written about these in various place on this blog and elsewhere, but this has been fragmented, so I am attempting here to write the story of my experience and how it has affected me in the long term.
Broader political context
First I'd like to put this in a broader political context. The nation of Australia has its origins in invasion, in which First Peoples of the continent were forced off the land, and many killed, to make way for several white supremacist, hierarchical, patriarchal states. These states federated to create the nation of Australia in 1901. While much of the legislation and regulation underlying white supremacist patriarchy has been dismantled since then, Australia still operates as a white supremacist patriarchy to a large degree in practice, through hierarchies in which white men hold most high level positions of power and a disproportionate amount of land, property and wealth.
As a white person, I have benefited from privilege in this society. As a woman, I have experienced disadvantage, including direct and indirect discrimination, and occasional violence and sexual assault.
In class terms, for most of my life I have been middle class, but I did experience some financial and other hardship in my teenage and early adult years, particularly when we lost our family farm, which was also associated with conflict, family violence and mental health issues.
Overall, I have had a good life and have benefited from privilege as a white middle class person. I want to acknowledge that here, before talking about specific harms that I have experienced as a woman in politics.
Experiences with the Victorian Parliamentary Labor Party 1996 - 2002
In late 1996 I accepted a job with the Parliamentary Labor Party in Victoria as a health and social policy researcher/adviser in the Office of the then leader of the Opposition, John Brumby. At the time I had recently completed a research MA in Australian history and had been working as a tutor and research officer at La Trobe and Monash Universities. I was not a member of the Labor party, although I subsequently joined. I was recruited through open advertising, not through the party. John Brumby's then chief of staff, Julia Gillard, who appointed me, gave me a contract that stated I was to be employed until the next state election.
I began work in early 1997. I found the working environment difficult, very pressured, and also very male dominated and 'blokey'. There were frequent sexual jokes and innuendoes in the office and comments on women's appearance and sexual attractiveness. During the time I worked there, there were rumours of sexual assault by a male MP, but I don't know enough about this to comment further.
The atmosphere in the Victorian Parliament at that time was demonstrated by an incident shortly after I started work, when the then Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, referred in Parliament to John Brumby and his recently appointed Deputy, John Thwaites, as "the girls from Grammar". This was a reference to Melbourne Grammar, the private boys' school Brumby and Thwaites had both attended, while Kennett himself had gone to another private boys' school, Scotch College.
In its boys' club misogyny, the remark summed up much of the situation on both sides of the Victorian Parliament at the time. While the Liberal and National parties were clearly male dominated and represented the wealthier classes in Victoria, the Parliamentary Labor Party was also dominated by four men who had attended private boys' schools, including John Brumby and John Thwaites, plus the Shadow Treasurer, Steve Bracks, and Shadow Attorney General, Rob Hulls, who had both attended Catholic boys' schools.
During the time I worked there, I worked hard and was good at my job, as was ultimately acknowledged. However, I sometimes struggled with the work environment. I occasionally found it distressing and at one time offered to resign, though I subsequently withdrew this. I worked mainly for John Thwaites, at that time the Shadow Health Minister as well as Deputy Leader, and for John Brumby, as required, when he was speaking on health and social policy issues. I was particularly involved in supporting Brumby's campaign in regional areas, recognised as a key factor contributing to Labor's eventual election success in September 1999.
In March 1999, John Brumby was replaced as Leader by Steve Bracks, who appointed Tim Pallas as his chief of staff. Tim Pallas conducted a review of staff. He met with most staff during the review, including male colleagues in equivalent positions to mine, but did not meet with me. At the end of the review he called me in to his office and summarily dismissed me.
Later two appointments were made, one of a social policy adviser at a more senior position than mine, and another researcher. Both were male. I think their appointments also partly reflected concessions that Bracks made to the left for their support, as he was from the right (as was Brumby). Between them they took up some of the work that I had done, including in areas like health and drug policy, where policy I had written or coordinated continued to be used, and was later published in a largely unchanged form.
My position was not a factional appointment and I was unaligned, although my views were left. Nevertheless, I had accepted that Bracks becoming Leader probably had consequences for me, particularly as I was mainly working for John Thwaites, his unsuccessful rival for leader. I would have been prepared for some downgrading of my position, perhaps being moved to a position as an electorate officer or similar. While my appointment was not 'political', and not factional, I nevertheless accepted that a leader has a right to staff they are comfortable with, and Bracks was not someone with whom I was particularly sympathetic.
I was not, however, prepared to be made to wait throughout the whole review process and then be summarily dismissed without even being allowed to speak for myself. It was shocking and traumatic.
Subsequently I contacted my union, only to find that Pallas had already spoken to a senior official in the union and a deal had been stitched up. The organiser who spoke to me told me she was unable to do anything other than arrange a small payout for me. She suggested I take the payout and go on a cruise or something. Apart from being a painfully ridiculous suggestion for someone who was a single mother and whose youngest child had just started year 12, it seemed to exemplify an attitude to women as people who had 'feelings' and might benefit from a treat, but weren't significant as workers.
Compounding it was a remark made by Tim Pallas in a subsequent meeting, to the effect that John Thwaites had said I would find it easy to get another job because of my skills. In other words he acknowledged I was good at my work, but that was irrelevant - I was still seen as disposable.
It took me some days to start collecting myself. By the time I found my contract, sought legal advice, and was advised that what I had been offered was below what I could have reasonably expected, it was a bit late, as I had already agreed in principle to the deal. Even so, there were points where the whole process could have been resolved. Two other MPs discussed offering me work, and I began working for one of them in another office at Parliament. One day I came in to visit my colleagues in the main office and talked to them about my view that I'd been unfairly treated. Tim Pallas obviously found out about it because he then banned me from entering the main office. After that I gave up the idea of continuing to work for the Labor party and took another job elsewhere.
The way I was treated still amazes me. If Pallas, Bracks and Thwaites had shown even the most basic compassion, the whole thing could have been resolved. But instead Pallas decided to treat me as someone who should be punished.
I looked into possible legal recourse, and decided that the Equal Opportunity Commission was the best avenue. Due to Kennett government legislation, I had very limited rights as an employee (staffers were officially employed by the Department of Parliamentary Services). It was also clear to me that I had been treated less favourably than male colleagues in equivalent positions, as I was aware they had been given the opportunity to speak with Pallas during the review.
I decided not to pursue the case until after the state election, which was expected to occur shortly at that time, because I wanted Labor to win the election and did not wish to be a distraction, or for my case to reflect unfavourably on the party as a whole. However, the election did not happen until September, and I had to bite my tongue until October, when Labor finally took power. This was very difficult. It was particularly difficult during the election period, when policies were published, and I saw Steve Bracks and John Thwaites on television speaking words that I had written for them, while I struggled with depression and social isolation.
The extent of my trauma can probably be gauged from the fact that it took me a very long time, even after Labor won the election, to accept that my former colleagues were no longer working in the opposition rooms at Parliament house. I knew rationally, of course, that they were not, that Labor was now in government and my former colleagues were now in Ministerial offices or different circumstances. At a deeper level, however, my mind refused to accept that and was stuck at the time of my trauma for a long time. Even now, more than 20 years later, I still sometimes have hopeful dreams that it has all been resolved.
Ultimately I lodged two complaints with the Equal Opportunity Commission in late 1999, one of discrimination in employment and one of victimisation. The Commission subsequently refused the discrimination complaint, saying it could not be substantiated (partly I think because some of my former colleagues, who were at the time going through a process of review to see whether their employment would be continued in government, refused to support me). It accepted the victimisation complaint. I exercised my right to have both complaints moved to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and after a long and exhausting legal battle over more than a year, the Tribunal ruled that both complaints had substance and could proceed to hearing. The complaints did not go to hearing because after that the respondents (Bracks, Thwaites, Pallas and the Department of Parliamentary Services) agreed to negotiate a settlement and the matter was finally settled before hearing.
I agreed to a confidentiality clause on the settlement, against my initial wishes, for reasons set out in more detail here. Confidentiality clauses are a bad idea for many reasons, but were pretty much standard, and there was a risk of being seen as an unreasonable litigant if you did not agree to one. As stated in the post linked above, I have arguably breached this clause by revealing some of the terms, however much of it had already been reported in the media at that time (it was leaked from within the Labor party, I don't know by whom). Anyway it's not necessary to go into details - the discrimination case was settled essentially as a wrongful dismissal, and the respondents did not ever admit discrimination in employment, although victimisation was not disputed. I received a detailed written reference acknowledging my work, private apologies from Thwaites and Pallas, various other expressions of support, and a cash payment. The Department of Parliamentary Services undertook to introduce anti-discrimination training for members of parliament.
Later, in 2002, I tried to go to a community forum held by the Labor government, to discuss my concerns about the equal opportunity process with the Attorney General, Rob Hulls, and was refused entry. I made another complaint of victimisation following that incident, which again was settled before hearing. This was settled publicly, and the main outcome was that Steve Bracks agreed to receive a paper from me on equal opportunity processes.
Later there was reform of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission. Some measures that I had called for were put into practice, although I don't know whether my paper contributed to that. A significant change was that organisations covered by the legislation needed to have equal opportunity policies and procedures in place. If they did not, that could be taken as evidence against them in the event of a discrimination claim. In other words, some of the burden of proof was put on to employers and managers to show they were doing the right thing, rather than on individual complainants to prove that they were not. This is appropriate in relation to legislation intended to correct widespread past patterns of discrimination. Moreover, employers and managers have much more power than individual employees, and can cover up relevant evidence, or put pressure on other employees not to provide evidence.
Did my action achieve anything?
Overall I think my action did achieve something, even though change is incremental. There are still problems in the Labor party, but it appears better than the conservative parties in relation to women in politics. Much of this is the result of pressure within the party, particularly from organisations like Emily's List, who support female candidates for pre-selection. However I think the actions of individual staffers like me, who stand up when MPs within the party behave wrongly, is also important.
Long term harms
Some painful aspects of this for me remain. It had a long term impact on my mental health and through that on my family, and it affected my career, particularly that I was not able to do the work I wanted to do. It took several years for me to focus effectively on other avenues of work. It also gave me a reputation as a 'feminist trouble-maker' with some people, including some in the Greens when I later left Labor and joined the Greens in 2001.
Bracks, Thwaites and Pallas remained prominent in public life, reminding me of the trauma I suffered. Although I received private apologies from Thwaites and Pallas, there has never been a significant attempt on their part (or that of Steve Bracks) at meaningful reconciliation. John Thwaites has remained influential in the field in which I now work, creating considerable awkwardness for me, rather than the collegial support I should have been entitled to.
Overall I do not think any of the men involved has suffered professional harm, notwithstanding that in a broad sense I 'won' the legal action. I am not vindictive and do not wish them harm, but it is wrong that I, the person who was wrongly treated, suffered both psychological harm and career disadvantage, while those who did the harm experienced no disadvantage.
I have written extensively about patriarchy in my academic work, and this was a clear case of a woman coming up against a patriarchal organisation, as the parliamentary labor party was when I worked for it. I made a dent in the patriarchy I think, but the fact that in doing so I suffered more apparent harm than any of the men involved, is a cautionary tale.
My experiences with the Victorian Greens
In 2001 I left the Labor party and joined the Greens. This was partly because of my experiences in Labor, but mainly because of the Tampa incident and federal Labor's failure to take a principled position on asylum seekers.
During the time I was in the Greens I served as convenor of the Women's Network, cooordinated the national health policy committee and stood as a Greens candidate for the then Province of Eumemmering in the Victorian elections in 2002. I also did a lot of other volunteer work as a local Branch member. More details of my work for the Greens are available here.
I also became involved in some disputes, partly related to my previous history in Labor. My experience in Victorian parliament was recognised as relevant and contributed to me gaining positions of responsibility in the Greens, but some people also appeared to have ambivalent or hostile attitudes towards me as a former Labor staffer.
When I first joined, I was still involved in the equal opportunity action, and appealed for support within the Greens. My appeal was for personal support, because the action was so difficult, and was on the basis that women have a right to be heard (not necessarily that we are always right). This position might possibly be better understood now after the #MeToo movement, but was not so well understood then.
Some Greens members, through misunderstanding or anti-feminism, suggested I was trying to get the Greens to 'take sides' in a legal action or get involved in Labor's 'internal disputes'. One of these was Mike Puleston, an influential older man in my local Branch, and at that time co-convenor of the Branch. I believe Mike Puleston has been one of the Greens members who has opposed me for a long time, although it is difficult to know, because unfortunately Greens processes allow anonymous attacks.
The most significant dispute I had in the Greens was with the then Victorian Greens Convenor, Adrian Whitehead, around 2003-04. Adrian, with the support of State Executive Committee, proposed to restructure the staff in the Greens office. The key proposal was to create a new more senior position to replace the office manager position. All office staff at the time were women. I was then convenor of the Greens' Women's Network and it appeared the restructure was being done in a high-handed way and was likely to result in disadvantage to existing staff. (There is evidence that as organisations get bigger, they become more hierarchical and are more likely to appoint men to senior positions.)
The Women's Network put a motion to State Conference to defer any decision on the staffing restructure until further ideas could be considered. However, due to lengthy discussion on other items, the motion was not discussed. Adrian Whitehead said he was going ahead with the current plan and the new position would be advertised. I decided I had no option but to resign, as he was sidelining the Network, and I did so in an email to State Council outlining my reasons.
Subsequently the Executive did appoint a man to the new senior staff position (I am not personally criticising him) and the female officer manager lost her job.
I did rejoin the party somewhat later, through State Council. I got a lot of support from members, but there was a small group including Adrian Whitehead who opposed me and said I should be banned from the party. I continued to have some reservations about the way the party was working and let my membership lapse in 2004, after the national health policy was completed.
Sometime later I applied to rejoin but was refused because some members of my local Branch objected. By this time the party regulations had been changed so that rejection of membership could occur at local Branch level.
I don’t know who the people objecting to me were, or what they said about me. I had no opportunity to hear or respond to the objections. A few years later I tried again and was again refused. This time branch office bearers met with me to discuss, but I still wasn’t told the objections or who was making them.
The officer bearers suggested that I could become a 'friend' of the Greens and become involved in policy development, but it seemed to me a ridiculous position for a political party to allow people to be excluded from membership because of unknown complaints by anonymous people, but allow them to be involved in policy development. I did, however, later do some voluntary work supporting local Greens candidates, prior to 2018, when Alex Bhathal was subjected to a campaign of undermining while she was Greens candidate for the then federal electorate of Batman (now Cooper).
I won't go into detail about what happened to Alex, as there was widespread media coverage at the time. This article from the Guardian gives a reasonable summary of what happened and how Alex finally quit the party in disgust. I was absolutely shocked. I had known Alex and worked with her when I was in the party and was appalled by the way she was treated. Like me, Alex was subjected to anonymous attacks, although her case was worse than mine.
I know something about the attitudes of some people in positions of influence in the party who failed to support or undermined Alex (not those involved in the complaints against her, I don't know them), and I believe that disapproval of Alex as an outspoken women, and sexist victim-blaming, played a part in why the Greens were not able to resolve this situation. Alex, as a woman of colour, also has suggested that racism played a part.
I am aware of other women in the Victorian Greens who have made claims of discrimination or harassment, or quit in disgust at failures in the party. I started researching this in preparation for a submission to the party, which I am still preparing. Below are some links to media reports of four other prominent women in the Greens, in addition to Alex Bhathal, who have chosen to resign in protest at the culture in the party:
s/amp.theage.com.au/politics/ victoria/the-tail-is-wagging- the-dog-bitter-greens- consider-their-options- 20190131-p50uvm.htmlhttps://www.smh.com.au/ politics/federal/victorian- greens-overridden-by-a- bullying-and-abusive-internal- culture-20180410-p4z8qb.html
I won't comment further on these here, because I have not spoken to all the women involved, and will be trying to follow this up in preparing the submission. However, they show that the Victorian Greens have not been able to deal effectively with discrimination, harassment and bullying of women in the party, in spite of the fact that they have a female leader in the Victorian Parliament.
I am not aware of any cases of sexual assault and rape in the Victorian Greens, however that of course does not mean there have not been any. There have been reported cases of sexual assault and rape of women in the NSW Greens. I won't comment further on that here, as I do not know much about it, but again it shows that even though the culture definitely appears much worse in the Liberal National Parties, none of the parties can claim to be exempt from these problems.
My overall conclusion is that even though the patriarchal and misogynist culture of politics in Australia is worse in the conservative parties, the ALP and Greens have also had problems in this area, and women like myself and others who have taken action to address this are at risk of exclusion and punishment. The situation seems to exemplify misogyny as defined in Kate Manne's 'Down Girl'.
In moral philosopher Kate Manne argues that misogyny should not be understood primarily in terms of the hatred or hostility some men feel toward all or most women. Rather, it is primarily about controlling, policing, punishing and exiling the "bad" women who challenge male dominance. And it is compatible with rewarding "the good ones" and singling out other women to serve as warnings to those who are out of order. (From description by publisher)
In fact something very much like this was expressed to me years ago by Rob Hulls when I was working for Labor, when he said: 'we don't hate all women Val, only some of them'. It was a joke, but expressed a truth: men in patriarchal organisations believe that they are 'granting' equality to women, and that they have the right to decide which women are deserving and which aren't. This is exemplified in Labor and the Greens at federal level, where leadership is usually held by men, even in the Greens where women are the majority of MPs. When women such as Julia Gillard or Christine Milne become leaders, they face gendered criticism and undermining, including - at least in Gillard's case - from within their own party. Julia Gillard was widely liked and approved of within Labor while she remained in the Deputy Leader position.
I also want to talk about silencing. There has been a lot of pressure on me over the years to be silent. In Labor there was at first the pressure of loyalty to the party, later the pressure of not speaking publicly while the case was on (this is a grey area but complainants are often advised not to speak publicly), then the pressure of the confidentiality clause.
Then there is the social pressure, including from friends and family, to get over it, to move on, to put it behind me. This applies to my experiences in both parties. There is so much pressure in our society not to be a 'victim', but to be a 'survivor', to overcome the hurt and 'live well'. Women are subjected to pressure to be silent about the injustice we experience and the impact it has on us, and in a way this is all the more effective because of the stereotype of female 'weakness'. We resist that stereotype, and try to act as if we are ok, but this also means that the harm done to us by men and patriarchy is being hidden. It's a vicious circle.
Finally there is the question of why women don't support each other more. The 'divide and conquer' tactic of misogyny that Kate Manne identifies could not work if women supported each other. In my own case and in Alex Bhathal's case, I know women who could have supported us but didn't, instead resorting to victim blaming, to suggestions that we are 'difficult', that we somehow did 'bring it on ourselves'.
Women need to support each other if we are to overcome patriarchy, and we need to support each other knowing that we are imperfect. I've thought a lot about why women don't support each other more and I basically think it comes down to fear. I agree with the idea of internalised misogyny but I think fear is a greater reason.
I remember as a 15 year old, when I started at a new school in remote area of South Australia, seeing Aboriginal children vilified and shouted at on a school bus. I was horrified but I was also scared that if I spoke out the kids shouting would start on me, so I sat there, hating it but too scared to speak. I think many woman feel like that about patriarchy, hating it but too scared to oppose it. As Kate Manne says, singling out women like me as a "warning" as what happens to "bad" women is a way of maintaining patriarchy. I can only hope that more and more women will start to see this, to recognise that women like me, even though we are imperfect, don't 'deserve' the harm we have experienced in political life.