Scott Morrison delivers an apology for harassment in Parliament House (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Just seven women bore witness to the government’s acknowledgment of the bullying and sexual harassment of parliamentary staffers in Parliament today. Among them were former Liberal staffers Brittany Higgins and Chelsea Potter, both of whom received last-minute invitations.

Tellingly, five white men spoke first. Speaker of the House Andrew Wallace led the acknowledgment. “We know that cultural change has to come from the top,” he said, before passing over to Prime Minister Scott Morrison who has in the past week been labelled a bully, a “horrible, horrible person”, a “psycho” and a “liar” by colleagues in leaked texts. 

Apologies from Morrison are rare. It’s a momentous event. The first sitting week of the year opened with an acknowledgment of the government’s failures after years of denying a toxic culture existed. 

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“We … sought to silence the valid and just complaints of people because there was fear about electoral consequences. I am sorry. We are sorry,” Morrison said. 

“I am sorry to Miss Higgins for the terrible things that took place here … [It] turned out to be a nightmare.”

There appeared to be tears from survivors and Higgins left shortly after Greens leader Adam Bandt began speaking.

The acknowledgment was recommended by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins in her report into parliamentary workplaces, which found 51% of people employed in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces had experienced some form of bullying, assault or sexual harassment, and one in three had experienced some form of sexual harassment. 

Morrison’s apology, while seemingly genuine, focused on the impact the culture had had on the workforce and struggles to retain and attract talent, but Labor leader Anthony Albanese went further.

“While the report concerns itself with this place, it is part of something bigger. An overdue national reckoning. Around this time last year, women across the country came together to call out the inequalities of gender and power that permeate their lives each day,” he said. 

Both said their parties are “fully committed” to implementing all the 28 recommendations proposed by Jenkins. A bipartisan taskforce chaired by former public servant Kerri Hartland has been established to oversee the implementation of the recommendations. 

But we’ve heard this before. The apologies were heartfelt, but the same mistakes are made time and time again. 

Higgins, Potter, Rachelle Miller and other survivors weren’t initially invited to the apology — COVID-19 restrictions were blamed — and they once again relied on media coverage to spur government action. This is reminiscent of the women’s safety summit, when Higgins also received a last-minute invitation. 

Although there’s bipartisan support to implement Jenkins’ recommendations, that was also agreed to around the Respect@Work report. Support for those recommendations was quietly walked back so that just six of the 16 recommendations were passed in Parliament. 

The day Jenkins’ parliamentary report was released, there was little change from within: yells of “get a room” echoed throughout Parliament mere minutes after Jenkins’ press conference, showing that once again the message hadn’t got through. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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