Ex Labor Party staffer Anna Jabour on toxic Parliament House culture amid Brittany Higgins scandal
I arrived in Canberra as a political staffer when I was just 21, starry-eyed and pinching myself about landing a job with the Prime Minister.
I thought Parliament House would be filled with some of the smartest people in Australia, who were driven by a sense of justice and purpose.
A few months after I arrived, I left, never wanting to work there ever again.
Being taken advantage of – being abused – is something I thought could never happen to me, but it did.
He was a male colleague, a respected friend who I thought I could trust. He was almost a decade older than me.
He told me how rare I was, how smart I was, how he’d never met anyone like me, then he coaxed me into bed and never spoke to me again.
I wasn’t experienced and I was taken advantage of. At first, I felt devastated, ugly and confused. Then I felt manipulated and used.
I’m still scarred.
Not only because of what happened to me, but because some of those who are infamous for their misconduct are still working there.
Over the last few weeks, both sides of politics have reacted with indignation to the horrifying revelations about Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape and her subsequent treatment, including senior ministers of the government.
The Opposition immediately called for an inquiry into the toxic workplace culture that engulfs Parliament, which Scott Morrison subsequently ordered.
But Labor needs to look in its own house too, because I was a Labor adviser.
In fact, one of the people I used to look up to the most, who turned out to be one of the most toxic figures, is currently a senior Labor figure.
A slew of individuals behind the scenes, as consultants and in state governments, who were also among the worst offenders are still lurking there.
Others have moved on and work for big corporations, landing one well-paid job after another.
When I went to Canberra, I was excited by the opportunity to work for a PM. Not just any PM, but the country’s very first female leader, Julia Gillard.
As the weeks wore on, I began to sense a dark shadow hung over the place – an unease I felt and that other women felt, of being looked at as an object rather than a brain.
There were conversations about it, and about the culture of Parliament House, that shocked me.
Young women were in relationships with male staffers – men they appeared to love but who were married or lived with spouses.
Some of the men were in relationships with multiple women from different offices or in other states. Most were in significantly more senior positions than the women.
Most of the time, the women were aware of the other relationships, but they believed they themselves were the women who were loved the most by the man who was courting them.
They were promised monogamy, they were given gifts, they were offered the world … if only they would just keep quiet and not mention it to anyone else.
It jarred me. It disenchanted me. It gutted me.
But this was the Canberra bubble, I was told. You can’t talk about it, I was urged, and should turn a blind eye to it like everybody else.
The things that went on in this place were off limits for those outside, who wouldn’t understand what it was like.
People didn’t understand the pressure these men faced, I was told. They were away from home half the year – to do their duty and be a parliamentarian, or to work for one.
They were entitled to their relationships, they were entitled to their dalliances, no one needed to know and it shouldn’t be reported.
But there didn’t seem to be any concern for the women involved – just the men. This imbalance was evident across the board.
Everywhere I looked, everyone I had looked up to, there were misdemeanours that were alleged or excused due to the pressures men faced in the workplace.
I couldn’t excuse it.
Parliament House was the most misogynistic workplace I had ever entered and I didn’t have the tenacity to push through the bulls***.
I know I’m not alone.
When a person is taken advantage of by someone in a position of power, most of the time, you don’t report it and turn inward instead.
Should you speak up, you’re likely to be managed out or made to feel like it’s your fault.
Most of the time you move on and blame yourself.
The review into Parliament’s workplace culture doesn’t give me faith that things will change in a meaningful way.
Sometimes, some things never change.
Until I see accountability applied to some of the people in the ranks on both sides of politics, and a genuine concern for the wellbeing of staffers, I can’t have faith that anything will shift.
It will take a generation.
It will take a host of Brittany Higgins – women from all sides of politics who are prepared to pay a hefty personal toll to come forward and voice what happened to them and will likely continue to happen to others.
It takes guts. And it once again puts the enormous responsibility on victims, not perpetrators or those who turn a blind eye.
Anna Jabour is a former Labor political adviser