'Sense of guilt': former Labor minister says focus should be on most vulnerable in Parliament, not just more female MPs

Former Labor MP for Adelaide giving her valedictory speech. Picture: Getty Images
Former Labor MP for Adelaide giving her valedictory speech. Picture: Getty Images

Former Labor minister Kate Ellis says she has watched the events of the past six weeks in Parliament - allegations of rape by a former staffer and sexual harassment from staffers and MPs - with a sense of guilt.

In her book Sex, Lies and Question Time, released this week, Ms Ellis details how she and other senior women attempted to battle on through the harassment, abuse and double standards they were subjected to, not wanting the sexism they faced to be the only story the public knew.

"I've been horrified at the stories that have been revealed, I've been horrified to learn how bad the situation still is, particularly at a staffing level and how dangerous that culture is at a staffing level," Ms Ellis said.

"Probably like a lot of elected MPs or former MPs I've also just been struck with this heavy sense of guilt, particularly when you hear stories not just of disrespect or mistreatment but of sexual assault crimes. Then I felt a real guilt for not having more of a focus on the most vulnerable in the building."

While the book includes interviews with women elected across the political spectrum - from Julia Gillard and Tanya Plibersek to Sarah Hanson-Young and Pauline Hanson - Ms Ellis said it was now "incredibly clear" the focus on women in politics shouldn't just be about elected officials.

"The first priority, the people who need action most urgently are probably the women in much more junior positions," she said.

Recent scandals had also showed the power in calling out instances of sexism, harassment and assault, she said.

"We need multiple voices calling it out, you can't just have one woman standing up saying, 'This happened to me and it's not OK'. They need to be supported by an army of women and men, whether they be MPs, in the media, or in the community," Ms Ellis said.

Elected to the seat of Adelaide in 2004, aged just 27, Ms Ellis became the youngest person to become an Australian federal minister after Kevin Rudd swept Labor to government in 2007. She served as Minister for Sport and a series of other ministerial and shadow ministerial roles before announcing she would step down at the 2019 election, citing a wish to spend more time with her two young sons.

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One of the more shocking anecdotes in the book, Ms Ellis says she was "hit on" by a fellow MP, a "crude approach" that made her feel shocked, offended and scared. She laughed it off at the time, worrying she had made a powerful enemy by rejecting a federal government minister. It's a moment that originally wasn't included in the book - Ms Ellis said it didn't seem "that remarkable a story" at first.

"Except it made me realise that if I felt that uncomfortable and a bit unnerved about whether there would be consequences or not, I just really thought about the staff in the building and how much worse it must be when they are placed in those situations and have a much bigger power imbalance," she said.

Ms Ellis has called for reporting on the gender breakdown of government chiefs of staff, press secretaries and senior advisers, saying getting women into politics and improving culture wasn't all about the MPs.

"What people haven't been talking about is, there's no transparency about how many of the senior political staff jobs are awarded to women, how male-dominated they are," Ms Ellis said.

While Ms Ellis began writing the book well before the current scandals plaguing the government and political circles, its publication was brought forward following the domination of sexual misconduct in Parliament in the headlines.

On Monday, Nationals MP Anne Webster added her voice to calls for change, saying she was sexually harassed by a fellow coalition MP just last week. She confronted the man involved and raised the issue with Nationals leader Michael McCormack. She has accepted an apology from the MP involved.

Parliament's workplace culture is under review by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, looking at the treatment of MPs, political staff, public servants and others working in the home of Australia's democracy. Ms Ellis said she would reach out to Ms Jenkins to detail her own experiences in Parliament.

"But also some of the lessons I've learned from having conversations about this issue with so many elected members or former members, what we really need now is action on the issue and I'll help in any way that I can to achieve that," Ms Ellis said.

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This story Ellis says focus should be on most vulnerable in Parliament, not just more female MPs first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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