#AceNewsReport – Mar.29: It was a cause for celebration when 30-year-old Kate Ellis was appointed as the youngest Australian to ever become a federal minister. But within 18 months things had turned ugly and her career was on the line.
Former Labor MP Kate Ellis leads group of female politicians lifting lid on ‘toxic workplace culture’ in Parliament House after in November 2009 she found herself in the “ridiculous” position of telling a national newspaper editor, “I promise I’ve never even kissed him,” as she pleaded for her political life.
“I still cringe when I think how pathetic it was that I was begging,” she says.
She says weaponised gossip in Parliament House and a rumour that she and her female chief of staff were both having a sexual relationship with a male adviser in their office “was everywhere”.
A major newspaper was going to print the story that the alleged love triangle was “destabilising” the government.
If published, she knew it would be career ending. “I would be labelled as a slut and as someone who isn’t really up for the job,” Ms Ellis tells Australian Story.
Not only was there “zero” truth to the rumour, Ms Ellis also says the inside knowledge of the workings of her office meant the story could only have originated from within her own party. “The only reason was to undermine me,” she says.
The pleas worked and the newspaper editor agreed not to publish, but there was no cause for celebration knowing: “Someone was actively fabricating a story to make sure that it looked like I was some flippant floozy who wasn’t really serious about the job that I’d been promoted to do.”
During her tenure as a minister, Ms Ellis was credited with introducing national quality standards for childcare and finalising the national plan to end violence against women and children. But she says throughout her career she and her female colleagues faced harassment, sexual slurs and destructive gossip designed to stop them being politically effective.
Now they’ve had enough.
It wasn’t until Ms Ellis left politics in 2019 that she realised how “toxic” the culture in Parliament House had been.
“It’s really strange how when you leave the parliament and re-enter normal life that you slowly start to realise how the rest of the world operates,” she says.
“Things that I used to accept were part of the job are really not OK.”.
She decided to reach out to other women — MPs and staffers across the political spectrum — to compare notes, and what came to light “would horrify the public”.
The stories tell a tale of systemic inequality, sexism, casual misogyny and sexual harassment.
“Focus on physical appearance is much greater for women, focus on their private lives, issues around motherhood, slut-shaming, personal attacks, rumours and gossip used to undermine women in a way men don’t have to face to the same extent in parliament,” Ms Ellis says.
“It makes it harder for you to actually focus on doing your job. There’s this casual misogyny that shows up in a whole range of ways.
“People are rewarded in politics for bad behaviour. If you undermine someone, then you’re more likely to be promoted.”
‘How many blokes have you f***ed’
Ms Ellis was 27 when she was first elected to parliament in the 2004 federal election. In 2007 she eclipsed Paul Keating’s achievement, becoming the youngest Australian government minister when then-prime minister Kevin Rudd appointed her minister for youth and minister for sport.
“I know that would have put a lot of noses out of joint and so it’s probably no surprise that there were people who wanted to undermine me,” Ms Ellis says.
“We just had this great election result which meant that we had a backbench brimming with people with ambition.
“You can only get promoted when there’s a vacancy and some people might think it helps to hurry along those vacancies.”
Over the course of her 15 years in parliament, she would take on the ministries of early childhood education, sport and the status of women, among others.
She says she never spoke to other women about the sexism she was facing.
“You don’t want to have a focus on, ‘Hey, do you know who thinks I’m a stupid bimbo? Who thinks I’ve slept with half the parliament? Do you know who is spreading rumours that I was caught naked in the prayer room?'” she says.
But gendered stereotyping and gibes were a constant throughout her political life, beginning from day one.
“I’d only been an MP for a couple of weeks and we were out for drinks and this Liberal staffer quite aggressively just said, ‘Kate, the only thing anyone wants to know about you is just how many blokes you f***ed in order to get into parliament.’
Just the fact that he came up and said that to my face when I was an elected MP and he was a staff member, that he still had the confidence to do that,” she says.
When she first came to politics, Ellis says most of the MPs were men, most of the senior staff were men, and all of the factional powerbrokers were men.
“I remember being a young staff member and being hit on by MPs,” she says. “That wasn’t uncommon.”
“But I know of much worse stories. Certainly when I was a staffer and a volunteer, I saw a lot of things but I also heard allegations of what I’d call serious sexual assault and misconduct from an elected Labor MP.
“This is something that isn’t new. We’ve seen a number of stories recently, but I suspect that there are hundreds and hundreds more.”
Now that Ms Ellis has left politics and “taken off her armour”, she is ready to add to the national conversation around women in Canberra by penning the stories of high-profile current and former female politicians in a new book, Sex, Lies and Question Time.
“I just wasn’t quite sure what I was going to hear,” Ms Ellis says. “Every conversation just started to build this picture that there is something seriously wrong in Parliament House.”
Former prime minister Julia Gillard spoke to Ms Ellis about her arrival in parliament and her naivety in thinking that it would quickly develop into a place of gender equality.
“I was a student at Adelaide University when I first woke to feminism, and if you’d said to me then, ‘When is there going to be a gender-equal world?’ I would have said, ‘Oh, you know, 10, 15 years’ time, no problems,’ but I was wrong about that,” Ms Gillard says.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was appalled by the treatment of Ms Gillard but was herself caught in the crossfire of sexual slurs and sledging.
“It’s like you can’t win either way. There’s no nice balance. Some days you’re a bimbo and other days you’re a bitch,” she says.
Ms Ellis’s Australian Story coincides with a wave of discontent about the treatment of women in politics, triggered by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped by a colleague inside then-defence industry minister Linda Reynolds’s office two years ago.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologised to her for how the matter was handled, and announced a series of inquiries into the adequacy of support measures for women in the building, as well as how to improve the broader culture.
Once the former staffer broke her silence, stories of abuse and bad behaviour started pouring out of the national capital. Perhaps the most shocking surfaced last week when a federal Liberal staffer was sacked for allegedly masturbating on a female MP’s desk.
Minister for Science Industry and Technology Karen Andrews told Australian Story the events of the last few weeks were “absolutely the worst I have seen here”.
“We are collectively a disappointment to the people in Australia, and that’s appalling,” she says.
“Things that I would never have imagined would have would have gone on in this building are now being played out in national media.”
Changing an entrenched and destructive culture in a workplace where women are still a significant minority isn’t simple. But Ms Ellis believes silence is no longer an option.
“I’ve long said that no boys’ club has ever voluntarily dismantled themselves. That’s just not going to happen,” Ms Ellis says.
“But women are standing up, we’re going to call it out and we’re going to demand change. And I want to be a part of that.”
When she started writing her book six months ago, Ms Ellis says she thought it would be “controversial to suggest there might be cultural issues” within Parliament House.
“I now share the sense of rage that women across Australia have,” she said in a recent tweet.
“I know a lot of us feel at the moment that we want to burn the place down, but if that sense changes to we want to take over the place then I hope that women will be able to learn from the experiences of those who’ve gone before.”
Here are the stories of current and former female politicians, in their own words.
Senator, Greens 2008-current
“Parliament is there for the people, it shouldn’t be a protection racket for the boys’ club.”
I ran in the 2007 election. I was 25 at the time and had an 18-month-old baby on my hip
I was shocked at the aggression in the parliament itself. I was genuinely confronted by the deep tribalism in that building.
You’re walking into parliament every day and needing to prepare for sexist slurs that will be thrown across the chamber. It is designed to both silence and shame women at the same time. It takes a lot of energy to put your armour on, you’re going to battle every day.
If we drew the curtains back even further I think the public would be horrified.
I’ve had names of men that it was rumoured that I slept with whispered to me as they walk past me in the chamber, as we’re sitting down to vote. All those things that are designed as mind warfare.
I became anxious of standing on my feet, particularly in Question Time. We’d been debating a motion in relation to violence against women in the Senate chamber and Senator [David] Leyonhjelm yelled across at me in the chamber, ‘You should stop shagging men, Sarah.’ I was quite shocked. I walked over to him and I said quietly, ‘What did you just say to me?’ And he confirmed that he had said this. I told him he was a creep. And he told me to f*** off.
For years I thought it would be weak if I responded, if I allowed anyone to know that this was happening to me. I asked him publicly in the chamber for an apology. He refused, went on national television, national radio and slandered me even further. I decided I had to take him to court. And I won.
The amazing thing is that calling it out and naming it is taking all the power away from the bullies. I feel like I’m 100 times stronger than I ever was.
Former member for Chisholm
“You don’t have to wait for the Christmas party or the sales conference for misconduct to happen.”
I entered parliament relatively late in life. I was in my 50s and I had behind me a career in the legal and corporate sector. I was immediately struck by the fact that it reminded me of when I first entered the workforce in the late 80s in terms of its attitudes to women.
It is very much an environment that is frozen in time. You go into there and think, ‘Is this really happening?’ I really believe our federal Parliament House is the most unsafe workplace culture in our country. And not only do women have nowhere to go to report misconduct, but they are subject to misconduct every day. I’m less talking about the MPs, I’m talking about the 5,000 other staff that are there.
When I announced I wasn’t going to recontest, I also called out the entrenched anti-women culture. It reached peak toxicity and I thought, ‘I’m going to exit. And if I’m going to exit this place it is going to be on my terms.’ I wasn’t going to limp out.
That was just the beginning of a three-month period of reprisals, retribution, abuse. This behaviour in Parliament House is so endemic and entrenched that men and women can often be blind to it.
If only our leaders would take accountability, rather than hoping that an issue would go away, if they introduced structures that would address this problem, then that is what gives me hope.Loading
Federal Member for McPherson
“The level of sadness, disappointment and anger is something that I probably haven’t seen before. Women feel as if they’ve been let down.”
My early days here were a real eye-opener in terms of the way that parliament operated, but also in terms of the environment in which I was working. I started my working life as an engineer. And you were always treated on the basis of whether or not you could do the job.
It’s very adversarial. There is a lot of constant low-level stuff — you just put up with it day after day. It’s the remarks about how you look, how you speak, how you present yourself. Comments that are really just unacceptable to anyone in any environment, let alone in the national parliament.
And that’s what I’d really like to see change. The parliament should reflect the Australian population, and that means that we need people with a wide range of experience, different ages, different genders.
The circumstances in which we find ourselves cannot continue. We are collectively a disappointment to the people in Australia.
Opposition Minister for Education and Women
“I felt protective knowing that Kate [Ellis] would encounter the dumb sexism that I had in those early days.”
I came in 1998 with a big group of women. I think you learn pretty early on that not all your enemies are on the other side of politics, and you need to be able to deal with that.
I think one of the reasons that female parliamentarians aren’t focused on calling out sexism on our own behalf is we think, ‘Well, you know, we’ve got power, we’ve got a voice. Our focus isn’t and can’t be on ourselves. Our focus has to be on the people that we’re serving.’
What does sexism look like in parliament today? It looks like being spoken over, it looks like having your ideas repeated back to you like they’re somehow original. It looks like an assumption that if you’re not aggressive in the same way as a bloke would be aggressive in the same circumstance that you are somehow letting down the team. A lot of it is unconscious. I think there’s a generation of men who don’t even realise that they’re doing it.
I try and call gossip out as soon as I hear about it or it spreads like a cancer. The simple truth is members of parliament staff have very few protections.
Natasha Stott Despoja
Australian Democrats 1995-2007
It doesn’t take much to look back at how prominent women in Australian politics have been treated.
When I first started working in federal parliament I was relatively young, and clearly in a very male-dominated environment.
I look back and I remember the ire of men, be they politicians or others, who were upset if you wouldn’t go out with them. There’s one married MP who pursued me as a staffer and then bullied me as a senator.
In my day you were called “princess” or “precious” when you complained about bad behaviour of male colleagues or their staff members or indeed members of parliament.
It wasn’t so much a culture of silence, it was a culture of silencing women who complained.
When it comes to our nation’s parliament, I want our leaders to play a leadership role. This has to be top-down and bottom-up, but particularly it has to be led by the people in whom we give power.
#AceNewsDesk report ……….Published: Mar.29: 2021:
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