When Kate Ellis finished her book, Sex, Lies, and Question Time, at the end of 2020, she couldn’t have known the storm that was about to break when allegations of sexual assault and the general culture of misogyny in Australia’s federal parliament came to public attention.

“Obviously if I was writing the book this year instead of last year it would probably have had quite a different tone, but I do think it’s all evidence of the same thing, which is a general culture of disrespect in the parliament.”

And despite her fifteen years in parliament from 2004 to 2019, Ellis says she was still shocked by revelations of a staff member masturbating on the desk of a female politician,  staff inviting sex workers into parliament house, and people having sex in the prayer room.

“It shocked me because I was always grateful. Every time I walked up to parliament house I’d look at that magnificent building and the huge flag on top and think about how special it was and how lucky I was that I got to work in that building. And it shocked me that there’s obviously a large cohort of people who worked in that building that just didn’t have the same level of respect and gratitude for the opportunity…It shows just a complete lack of unworthiness to have the privilege of working there.”

Kate Ellis was only twenty-six when she was elected to parliament and the youngest to join the front bench when, in 2007, she was made Minister for Youth and Minister for Sport. On entering parliament, she was almost immediately subjected to unsolicited advice about what she should wear and how she should wear her hair, and was repeatedly forced to defend herself against rumours about her sex life, none of which were true, but which nevertheless threatened to derail her career. She says despite all of this, there were improvements over the fifteen years she was in parliament and despite the recent revelations she remains “more determined to make sure that there’s more change”.

I ask Kate Ellis whether she thinks after the women’s marches, Brittney Higgins meeting with Scott Morrison, and the money allocated in the recent budget towards women’s services, the Morrison government fully understands the problems women face, particularly in regard to sexism within the parliament. She says she thinks they’re trying, but they still don’t fully understand.

“And I think as long as we look at the parliament and see Andrew Laming sitting there on the government benches and in the government party room it’s evidence that they haven’t got it, no matter what they say.”

Kate says she thinks the “one in five women over the age of fifteen” who have been sexually assaulted have been looking to the parliament to make things better but see that they still don’t get it.

“I think it needs more than a political response like putting more money into childcare. I think it needs a human response and I don’t think we’ve seen that yet.”

In her book, Ellis says Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech was a turning point for women. I ask her whether she still thinks it was, given recent events. She says she does because women seeing the Prime Minister had experienced the same sexist treatment they had gave them the courage to stand up and speak out about it too. But she adds:

“It has to be not just the person copping sexist treatment that sits up and calls it out. It has to be their colleagues and even their opponents, commentators, and the general community.”

And Ellis still thinks there has been a massive amount of progress this year.

“I think there’s something really powerful about seeing young women like Grace Tame speak up and tell her truth and call on others to do the same.”

Ellis now has two young boys, aged three and six. They are the main reason she chose to leave parliament in 2019 as she wanted to be able to spend more time with her family. I ask her how, as the mother of boys, she teaches them about equality and respecting women.

“I think we have a real responsibility to raise men who are more respectful but also more aware and understanding of some of the inequalities that still exist. I regularly lecture my boys about these things and have conversations about it. I don’t think it’s ever too early.”

As for her plans for the future, Kate says she hasn’t quite worked out what she wants to do yet.

“I concentrated on the book last year…and now that’s finished and released I am increasingly ready to come up with the next plan. I’m still young enough to have a second career.”

Sex, Lies and Question Time will be launched at Avid Reader via ZOOM, 24 May, 6.30-7.30pm. Link HERE.