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‘Toxic boys club’: Women in politics join calls for code of conduct in parliament

Women from across the political spectrum have called for greater representation in parliament and a code of conduct to create a safer and more equal workplace. 

Several federal MPs attended a summit run by the ANU’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership on Thursday where they described the culture in politics as a “toxic boys club” with a “sexist underbelly”.  

The institute was founded by Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard to examine the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.

It comes after a spotlight has been placed on the treatment of women in Australian politics this year following allegations of sexual assault and misogyny, which culminated in a nationwide women’s march.  

Speaking at the summit, Labor MP Anne Aly said a “legacy of misogyny” continues to plague Australia’s parliament. 

“While we have increased the number of women in parliament, it’s not enough, it’s not the end game, we still have so much further to go,” she said. 

Currently, there are 86 women in the lower and upper houses and 141 men.   

Labor MP Anne Aly.

Labor MP Anne Aly.


Ms Aly is also concerned that women are “overwhelmingly” represented in marginal seats and underrepresented in safe seats, increasing the vulnerability of their political careers.

She said improving representation included the need to give opportunities to women of diverse backgrounds and ensure more women progressed into positions of leadership in the political system. 

“It is still a boys club. Having more women is going to change that but the culture needs to change,” she said. 

The two-day ANU event was organised to bring together academics, politicians and political staffers to establish a model of conduct for Australia’s parliament. 

This will be formally submitted to the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces currently being led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.   

Greens Senator Larissa Waters also described the culture as “a bit of toxic boys club”. 

“Those in power are often pale, male and stale and there are not enough women at the decision making table,” she said. 

Senator Waters said she believed the current structures and systems inside parliament maintain the standards expected by the Australian public. 

“This year has really exposed the massive sexist underbelly of parliamentary work,” she told the summit. 

“We need a code of conduct that applies to all parliamentarians and their senior staff that addresses not just sexual harassment and bullying [but] the full gambit of expectations that the public have.” 

Greens Senator Larissa Waters at Parliament House in Canberra.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters at Parliament House in Canberra.


Independent MP Helen Haines added that there remained persistent structural barriers to equality of representation in Australia’s parliament.

“The parliament was set up by men for men with all of the social, culture, gender and racial prejudice built in,” she said. “We know that the rules of the game simply don’t apply evenly.”  

Former Liberal MP Sharman Stone told the summit improving gender representation would help deliver better outcomes in government. 

“There are profound reasons why countries that have a better gender balance are often better placed to have a stronger democracy and one where the government of its country is respected,” she said. 

The Jenkins inquiry was established in the wake of sexual assault allegations made by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped by a colleague inside Parliament House in March 2019. 

The review intends to publish a report on the findings and recommendations of its review in November this year. 

A separate review conducted by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster recommended an independent body to handle complaints of sexual harassment, assault or bullying among MPs and their staff.  

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.  

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.auEmbrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

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