Brittany Higgins, a Liberal Party staffer has again highlighted the terrible culture in the Federal Parliament, with disturbing allegations that she was raped in a ministerial office. Miss Higgins says she felt like she couldn’t report the matter to the police, and keep her job.
In addition, and many leaders would find this alarming, the situation apparently wasn’t escalated to the boss, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The allegations raise a number of very serious ethical issues and failures of process within Parliament House. Peter Wilkinson and Liam Cox speak with Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of The Ethics Centre.
The halls of parliament have yet again been robbed with allegations of misconduct. Former Liberal Party media advisor, Brittany Higgins, alleges she was raped by another staff inside the office of MP Linda Reynolds. These are the officers of the most powerful leaders in Australia and the culture within Parliament House appears rotten. Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre. Simon, how would you go about fixing this crisis in Canberra?
Dr Simon Longstaff:
Well, I think the first thing is to understand what might lie at the heart of it. What’s caused this in the first place? I don’t think unless you understand that you can’t really do anything about it. It just ends up spinning the wheels. I think the prime minister, the leader of the opposition has been correct along with other people across the party spectrum in looking to investigate the culture that prevails and whatever that throws up will then be the source of guidance needed to make the necessary repairs.
The difficulty Simon is this, this is not the first time this has been going on, isn’t it? So, there’s sort of recidivous behaviour going on here, isn’t it?
Dr Simon Longstaff:
In terms of looking at what might be happening, I think there are a number of different factors which certainly never ever excuse the kind of conduct we’ve seen revealed most recently but at least begin to start to explain it.
One of those is just to do with the facts about people who live in proximity of power and particularly in very tightly defined tribes, often under intense pressure and the thing about the powerful, whether it’s an aristocracy of the past or people exercise democratic power is it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that the rules of ordinary folk don’t apply to you. That you’re living in a special space. I think even our ordinary language captures some of this when we talk about the so-called ‘Canberra Bubble’. You need to take very special, additional measures to keep people with their feet on the ground to act as an antidote if you like to that tendency. Never excusing it but at least if we understand factors like that, we can begin to address them.
Another point that you’ve talked about is accountability.
Dr Simon Longstaff:
Yes. Well, this is a larger problem which I think is affecting society and it goes to some of the cynicism you see when the public historians like this. I do get the sense that there was an earlier time in which democratic politics were seriously grounded in the notion say of ministerial responsibility, where even if you weren’t to blame, you weren’t literally to blame for the thing that happened, nonetheless, you were willing to take responsibility.
These days you get the feeling that that’s been thrown away, that the only time you will ever be held to account if there’s been a flagrant breaking of the law and someone’s caught you red-handed and you draw across the coals and then maybe only then you’ll be held to account.
Now the trouble is that if that’s how you begin to think about those who’ve got the greatest power, then it starts to affect everyone. Maybe we belong to a tribe where we don’t have to be responsible in the same way, where it’s only if you’re caught red-handed, it’s only if it’s a flagrant breach that you need to do anything at all and of course, this infuriates ordinary Australians particularly after the recent events involving COVID where if you’ve been out without a mask or exceeded a boundary you’re rigorously held to account.
From a corporate affairs point of view, we look at four things that need to happen in these kinds of situations. The first leaps off from what you just said and that is the need for a code of conduct or a code of ethics.
Dr Simon Longstaff:
We need a code of conduct which is setting if you like the non-negotiable rules, but the more powerful thing is the articulation of a set of core values, core principles, which guide you even when no one’s watching, even when there’s no particular rule in place, nonetheless, it still is the kind of compass. The reason it’s so important is it both tells people what they can expect of you and also sets some internal foundation for how you should conduct yourself. Once that’s been established, then you remove a lot of the ambiguity from judgment around those questions and people say, “Okay, we understand we’ve made this as a…” And it should be a public declaration but unless it’s actually going to have real truth, it creates a deep performance cynicism that would have existed otherwise.
What we’ve done in situations for clients and these have been particularly relevant since the main term movement really took off. Sexual harassment or bullying places is quickly get the person who’s accused to step aside and bring in an external independent expert investigator, somebody who’s had experience really pulling these things apart and working out what happened and where the deficiencies lie on the organization.
Dr Simon Longstaff:
I think there’s two separate things. I think that is an essential first step which is really about the facts of the particular matter and then hopefully leading to adjust resolution and that in part means making sure that the person who’s raised the complaint is not the sacrificial victim.
Unfortunately, Australia is just got a terrible record when it comes to whistle-blowers and others, they’re sort of shuffled out, they signed a nondisclosure agreement and they’re gone. It’s a bad taste left in everyone’s mouth. The kind of skills that you need to do that investigation and to bring about that kind of resolution I think are different to those that you need to be able to understand the underlying foundations that are shaping the culture. For example, we have a piece of work that we do that exposes what we call shadow values and shadow principles.
These are things which sort of if you like there a corruption of the core values and principles, but they become very powerful in the shadows and what casts the shadows. Most often, it’s the perception if not the reality of hypocrisy in an organization so if somebody says one thing and the organization behaves in a different way, either through the particular conduct of individuals or the way in which it’s set up its systems, its policies and structures, that casts a pretty big shadow and into the shadows people are going to say, “Well, if they don’t believe it, why should I?” And they start to develop their own alternative framework of values and principles. This takes hold you start to see what’s called the normalization of deviance. A little thing’s overlooked and then it gets bigger and it becomes the new norm.
Earlier you referred to what I would call the third thing that we look at and that is, you’ve got to have a genuine empathy for the person who is the victim or the alleged victim and that has to be a visible empathy too. As Liam referred in the opening, apparently the prime minister didn’t know about the allegation that went. The boss didn’t know that an alleged rape had occurred in his building which displays an extraordinary lack of empathy or a culture of a lack of empathy.
Dr Simon Longstaff:
To be honest, I think there’s going to be a lot that needs to be investigated this. Look it almost beggar’s belief that the prime minister would not have known and other people, but I also know that there are people who can make errors of judgment with the best of intentions. If a person who’s been subject to something as horrible as say an attempted or an actual rape, any kind of harassment is saying to those around them, “Look, I don’t want this to become an issue.”
In other words, if they’re claiming again their own agency and their right to have some control, I know that people would be sympathetic to that because they’ve just had all of their power stripped away from them and now if somebody else is going to run over the top of them. That might make it worse. Sometimes these things are just very badly managed. That’s what we’ve got to be open to, but we have to do it with a kind of rigour and intensity so that we don’t hoodwink ourselves about what are the real causes and if there is something worse than I’ve imagined there, that comes to the surface side so it can be addressed.
The fourth thing from the corporate affairs point of view is you’ve got to have somebody who’s an advocate or a group of people who are advocating for the reform and the culture change, and that’s got to be repetitive consistent so that people understand that there is a need for change.
Dr Simon Longstaff:
Yeah, and I think they’ve got to be consequences too for what people do. I mean, if you’ve said these are our values and principles if these are non-negotiable rules and then somebody just breaks them. It’s not as if you can say, “Oh, well, so what.” Because that’s one of the things which will be experienced and perceived as hypocrisy. We said one thing we did something else; it doesn’t seem to matter and that’s where you start to see this mutation taking place.
Paid-up Dr Longstaff, thank you very much for your time and insight. It’s greatly appreciated, and our thoughts are with Brittany Higgins. It takes incredible strength and courage to go public as a whistle-blower to instigate reform. May justices serve you well.
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