As a White Ribbon Ambassador since 2012, I have undertaken an oath never to commit, to excuse or to remain silent about violence against women. We need to take a stand for our wives, girlfriends, daughters, mothers, aunties and for our female work colleagues.
There is never an excuse for abuse, and we need to intervene to stop violence-excusing attitudes being normalised. Young people learn about respectful relationships from people around them, so we all have the opportunity to make a change.
All matters of sexual assault allegations or workplace safety have to be taken incredibly seriously and in regard to the work culture in Parliament House, I have been deeply troubled by the reports over the past couple of weeks, as I am sure people throughout Australia have been.
This hasn’t been my experience of working in the Federal Parliament where I first worked in Parliament House in 2002 for a year for the previous serving member, Peter McGauran. I worked for him in his office and I didn’t experience or witness anything like what is being described in the newspapers and reported in the media.
Now, as a Minister with 10 staff in Canberra, my office has a strong team culture and supportive environment. I don’t have any issues of concern with my own staff. I think it’s a great working environment for a young person who is keen to make a difference in the community.
However, I can’t turn my back on the fact that these allegations are extremely serious and there are questions being asked about whether the staff feel safe in the workplace.
We need to investigate this further and the Prime Minister has put together a panel of Members of Parliament from all sides to ensure a thorough investigation takes place. If there are changes that need to be made, they should be made. Everyone should be able to go to their workplace and feel safe and do their job, particularly the Parliament of Australia.
In the meantime, all current or former staff in Members of Parliament Offices, whether they work in the electorate or in Parliament House, have been provided with a 1800 contact number for 24/7 support that provides access to confidential trauma informed counselling services for people who have experienced a serious incident in a Commonwealth Parliamentary workplace.
This service can also provide supported referrals to other specialist services, and assistance determining pathways to progress complaints. Current and former Commonwealth, Parliamentary and Electorate Office staff, their families, friends and colleagues have access to this 1800 support.
It is important to note that this support service does not undertake investigations, nor remove the obligation to report any behaviour involving violence, sexual assault, assault or threats to the police, nor replace the need to report criminal offences to the police or replace rape crisis services in each state or territory.
More broadly, we have a problem with violence against women throughout the Australian community. Here in Gippsland rates of sexual assault reports have increased over the past decade. Some of that increase could be because people are more inclined to come forward and are more willing to report than they have been in the past. Some could be because there are actually more assaults occurring, or it could be a combination of both.
No matter how you look at it, this issue of violence against women is a men’s issue. It comes from controlling and disrespectful behaviour.
It starts in the playground and right back when young men are little boys. It presents itself as emotional and physical abuse, and we need to build a culture where women are treated equal, where they’re not objectified and they’re not subject to sexist jokes or remarks. Whilst all men are not predators and don’t commit violence, it is sad that the overwhelming majority of cases involving sexual violence in our country involve male perpetrators and female victims.
I believe the issue of consent is one that should be properly taught in our schools, while also making sure that parents and media commentators also understand how to talk about the issue so that victims, know that support is available in our community. It is important that victims know they can come forward and can make their allegations in a way that is properly investigated and will be properly supported in that process. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case, and that has led, I think, to the reluctance among some women in our community to report cases.
We have to teach our daughters and young women in our lives to be wary of predators and to take precautions. But it is far more important and far better use of our time to teach our sons or men in the community about issues of consent and to not take advantage of those situations when you have a more vulnerable person in your presence.
It is important that we take steps to take action on this issue, no matter how small, and we can all start by talking to our children and family members about respectful relationships.
These are big challenges for us as a nation.