SYDNEY, Australia — Australia’s boys-club political culture appeared in recent weeks to receive a healthy dose of #MeToo disruption.
First, Robert Doyle, the lord mayor of Melbourne, resigned after two members of the City Council accused him of groping them. Days later, Barnaby Joyce, the deputy prime minister, stepped down after he confessed to an affair with a staff member and was then accused by another woman of harassment.
The scandal surrounding Mr. Joyce even prompted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to ban members of Parliament from having sex with their subordinates — the first time in five years that the rules on ministerial conduct had been updated.
But according to women who work in the halls of Australian power, the scandals in February were but a tiny sampling of the pervasive culture of sexual harassment endemic to the country’s politics.
Less than a third of the Australian Parliament is female. Canberra, the capital, is frequently described as an old boy’s club, with many men’s connections — and attitudes about sexual conduct — starting in the elite universities and the youth wings of the major parties that guide the politically ambitious through their twenties.
“It was clear that a bully boy culture had accumulated over many, many years,” said Ellen Sandell, a Greens politician and member of the Victorian State Parliament. “It’s got to start somewhere.”
That culture of harassment and protection for powerful men, women say, has prevented more accusers from speaking publicly about encounters with politicians. It has also, they say, stymied a more robust #MeToo movement — akin to those that have rattled Washington and Hollywood — from taking hold.
“I know it prevented a number of other victims and witnesses’ feeling safe to come forward,” said Tessa Sullivan, a former Melbourne City Council member who accused Mr. Doyle of harassment. “A number of politicians knew about my abuse and tried to deter me from speaking out.”
Confronting Campus Assault
Australia’s universities are in the early phases of a reckoning.
Over the past few years, students at the University of Sydney, Australian National University and on several other campuses have mobilized against “rape culture,” drawing attention to a lack of punishment for sexual assault and harassment.
Their efforts led to a nationwide survey of 31,000 university students in which 51 percent said they were sexually harassed at least once in 2016. Advocates said the actual figure might be even higher; in most cases, neither the victims nor bystanders report the episodes — often because they feel nothing will be done.
Many Australian women a generation removed said it was at least as bad or worse during their student days. And, they said, the culture of student politics did not help.
Each of Australia’s main political parties has an active youth wing — the Young Liberals promote themselves to anyone aged 16 to 31; Young Labor focuses on anyone under 26 — and their efforts often overlap with on-campus campaigns.
Many lawmakers started out in this milieu, with student bodies or union boards, before moving to staffing roles, party offices or legislatures. Three of Australia’s five most recent prime ministers — Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and John Howard — began their political careers as students at the University of Sydney.
The dynamics of power in these groups have not been equal. Women make up only 29 percent of the Young Liberals membership, according to the group’s website. Student leaders say men tend to dominate the senior ranks across parties and campuses.
Regular gatherings of young people in politics — like the annual National Union of Students conference in December — are also notorious for alcohol-fueled inappropriate behavior.
“At one of them, a Queensland Labor man threatened to rape me as I was walking back to my room,” said Tammy Franks, a Greens member of the South Australian Legislative Council, who was active in student politics in the ’90s. “I was on the sexual harassment and grievance committee, and there was a lot of that type of behavior.”
‘Mean Blokes’ in Parliament
Politicians have carried their university-bred attitudes up the ranks for decades.
Jacqui Munro, a former Liberal staff member in New South Wales who joined the party in 2011, says the “mixture of older adults and young staffers” in many political workplaces can produce situations where professional and personal boundaries are poorly defined.
Mr. Joyce, the deputy prime minister, ended up having an extramarital affair with a younger member of his staff — that’s the extreme. But there are other problems with combining power, proximity and desire.
“Closeness can sometimes be misread, especially if alcohol’s involved,” Ms. Munro said. “People can be inappropriately handsy, and sometimes get away with things because it’s considered a bit too difficult to manage in a long-term sense. You just sort of address it quietly.”
That tendency to “address it quietly” — driven in part by the expectation of party loyalty — often works to preserve the careers of predatory men while women who lodge allegations frequently face an intense backlash. One of the women who accused Mr. Joyce of harassment (a claim he denies) was identified publicly by The Australian, a national conservative newspaper, without her consent.
And public shaming — also common on university campuses — frequently leads to perpetual silence, or whispering.
Ms. Sullivan, the former Melbourne council member whose allegation helped topple the city’s mayor (he denies the accusation), said women working in Australian politics frequently warn one another privately about male colleagues’ conduct, but are often reluctant to accuse their harassers publicly.
“Female politicians,” she said, understand that they have “to take steps to protect themselves from being violated.”
The threats and abuse span parties and states.
Ms. Sandell, the Victorian Parliament member, made headlines in 2016 when she called out sexist bullying on the chamber’s floor. Sexual harassment had become so pervasive, she said, tour guides stopped allowing primary school students to watch debates taking place in the chamber.
In Canberra last year, a young volunteer accused the Greens party of mishandling her complaint about an older party member whom she accused of sexually assaulting her on election night.
In South Australia, Ms. Franks said she, too, sees signs of a “toxic culture.”
“People act like spoiled teenagers, and because they have a lot of power they think they can get away with it,” she said. “It’s like ‘Mean Girls’ in reverse. ‘Mean Blokes.’”
Australia’s main political parties, in the wake of scandal after scandal, have said they are trying to improve their relations with women.
But with the issue confronted only weakly for years, many women in and out of Australian politics say the country must do more to hold men accountable at every phase of life — and to ensure that women are not pushed aside by a culture of abuse.
“My advice for women who wish to join politics is to find your voice before joining,” Ms. Sullivan said. “You will need bravery.”
But, she added, “please do give it a go, because we need more women to help shape the world we all live in.”