Sydney Morning Herald logo

Op Ed: When will things improve for women in parliament? They already have

Op Ed by WFE CEO, Licia Heath, for the Sydney Morning Herald. Published on 22 June 2023.

Let’s not sugar coat it, last week was a demoralising and often disturbing time to be a woman in Australian politics. While the media maelstrom swirled around a small number of women, the ensuing discussion about sexual assault and misconduct in the heart of our national democracy has swept up many current and aspiring female politicians, in addition to millions of politically engaged Australians. It’s left many of us asking: when will things improve?

As Shirley Bassey sang: “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.” Or is it?

Serendipitously, I was in Canberra last week to launch the Parliamentary Friendship Group of Women for Election, and spent a significant amount of time catching up with female politicians across the political spectrum, staffers, journalists and Parliament House staff.

Their comments were illuminating and somewhat at odds with media reporting and public sentiment. Unanimously, they all reported that the culture in Parliament House had improved markedly in recent times, which aligns with my own experience.


Let’s examine the evidence: while some of the reports are new, the actions being reported are not. Media reporting has a funny way of bending time – by drawing past events back into our collective consciousness, we can forget that none of the allegations made over the past week are new.

Brittany Higgins alleges she was raped at Parliament House in March 2019. Former senator Amanda Stoker stated she was inappropriately touched by Senator David Van in late 2020. And while Senator Lidia Thorpe has not specified the timing of her allegations against Van, her rationale for not coming forward sooner was to avoid distraction from Higgins’ claims, inferring a similar timeline.

Let me be clear: in no way, shape or form does this make the alleged actions any less despicable. However, the fact that more and more women are speaking out about past assaults symbolises that the culture of intimidation is diminishing.

There is a palpable desire to create a more diverse, inclusive parliament.

The 2022 federal election created a marked shift in the parliament, with a record number of women elected: the House of Representatives is now 38 per cent female, while women make up a majority of 57 per cent in the Senate.

Critically, also new to the parliament is a large contingent of women (and men) who had career experience outside the parliamentary “bubble” and the work and cultural standards expected in other professional settings, the standards that you and I must, and should, adhere to.

For this reason, there is a diminishing desire to “play the game” which, in political circles, has long been taken to mean “put up [with misogynistic behaviour] and shut up”.

This was very much the spirit I observed at the launch of our Parliamentary Friendship Group last week. The growing number of women in parliament is driving strong, cross-party collegiality. The raw reflections of our speakers – female politicians at all levels of government – made clear that they see this as a watershed moment in Australian politics. There is no going back.


The Jenkins review has created enduring change. At first glance, it might appear that the current cultural shift is wholly due to the increased diversity in our parliamentary chambers following last year’s federal election and the Labor government’s commitment to gender equality. However, we need to give credit to the former Coalition government, which established the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, aptly named the “Set the Standard” review, in early 2021 with support from the opposition and the crossbench.

We’re all well aware of the shocking depth and breadth of the sexual harassment in Parliament House, which was uncovered as part of the review. The finding that one-third of all parliamentary staffers had been sexually harassed sent shockwaves through our nation’s political system and led to women marching onto the street. The other key finding of the report was that power, gender and cultural imbalances were key drivers of misconduct, an imbalance that Women for Election is laser focused on correcting.

While addressing a pernicious culture takes time, and we certainly have a long way to go, it’s important to acknowledge the progress that has been made by the Parliamentary Leadership Taskforce, established to enact the 28 recommendations of the Set The Standard report.

To all those feeling demoralised by the events of last week, I encourage you to be a part of the change you want to see. Stand for election yourself, volunteer on another woman’s campaign, or simply call out appalling behaviour in our political chambers. In the words of pioneering suffragette Christabel Pankhurst: “Take courage, join hands, stand beside us, fight with us.”