(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

On the final sitting day of the year, Liberal MP Gladys Lui threw Health Minister Greg Hunt a Dorothy Dixer: “Will the minister please outline to the House how our healthcare heroes have worked tirelessly to protect Australians throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?” Hunt replied that she was the “best member for Chisholm”. 

It was a useless question better suited to an election campaign poster than Parliament. The groans from Labor were embellished by a bellowed “get a room!” from an as-yet unnamed male Labor MP. 

The comment is obviously horribly sexist, implying men and women on the same team couldn’t possibly work together without there being sexual connotations.

It’s particularly concerning because interjections such as these don’t make it into Hansard, the transcript of proceedings. So unless the comment is picked up on by the speaker, another politician who has the floor, or a journalist, the public doesn’t hear about it — keeping the sexist, slimy nature of Parliament House yet again under wraps. 

Representatives for Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Labor’s spokeswoman for women Tanya Plibersek didn’t respond to Crikey’s question whether the member would be reprimanded. But shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said all parliamentarians need to watch their language: “I hope every member of this place reads the Jenkins report … and I want the behaviour of the 227 members of this Parliament to be an example to the nation.”

The shouted remark came just two days after sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins released her damning report into parliamentary workplace culture, “Set the Standard”.

In those two days, we’ve had Senator Jacqui Lambie interrupted by Liberal Senator David Van with what other senators called a dog-like growling noise. (Van denies this, saying it was an interjection that came out as a growl because of his mask. He apologised to Lambie.)

On the same day a former staffer for Education Minister Alan Tudge alleged their romantic relationship was emotionally and physically abusive. (Tudge denies this and has stepped aside from his portfolio pending an investigation.)

Yesterday Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said to Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes “at least I keep my legs shut” as other senators called on the Senate president Slade Brockman to address “nasty” standards on the floor. (Thorpe quickly apologised for the remark.) 

And unnamed MP in the House of Representatives laughed when the House was discussing the importance of respect as mentioned in Jenkins’ report.

Let’s not forget Jenkins also looked at the experiences of press gallery journalists. Some female reporters had male colleagues put forward to write analyses and opinions on the report over them. Others say they endured jokes in the office about the report while they sat poring over the harrowing testimonies. (This piece analysing the report by Dennis Shanahan in The Australian doesn’t include the words “woman” or “women” once. “Female representation” gets one mention, in the third last paragraph.)

Labor, Liberal, Greens. Women, men. The toxic culture is being cultivated by all (though as Jenkins’ report found, women in Parliament experienced sexual harassment and bullying at almost double the rate of men. It also found that having more men in senior positions led to power imbalances that can drive abuse).

The culture in Parliament House isn’t that far off an acne-ridden high school classroom, with insecure children bullying one another, making sexual innuendoes they’ve just learnt and are testing out, and playing dumb power games to test the pecking order. 

But it’s more than that. In Parliament there’s real power, established hierarchies, and careers people have worked hard at for decades on the line.

People have been bullied into taking their lives. They’ve been sexually assaulted in their workspaces. And they’re afraid of the repercussions of speaking out. Neither Labor nor the Coalition has pledged to implement all 28 of the Jenkins report’s recommendations. 

Despite the report making national headlines, it wasn’t the focus of Parliament in the days after its release. Despite being the protagonists of the 456-page document, politicians don’t appear to be overly disturbed by it. And they certainly don’t seem to be taking what needs to change seriously.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.