Kate Ellis first arrived in Canberra as a 27-year-old newly minted Labor party politician from Adelaide.
By 2007, she’d eclipsed Paul Keating’s record to become the youngest Australian federal minister and when she left politics three years ago, she had become a seasoned operator who had successfully managed four government ministries.
But from the moment Ellis first entered federal politics in 2004, she had to deal with attention focused on her gender and looks, rather than her capacity to do the job.
“I’d only been an MP for a couple of weeks and we were out for drinks and this Liberal staffer came up to me and quite aggressively said, ‘Kate, the only thing anyone wants to know about you is just how many blokes you effed in order to get into parliament,’” she says. “Just the fact that he came up and said that to my face when I was an elected MP and he was a staff member, he still had the confidence to do that.”
A few years later as Minister for Sport, Ellis’s career hung in the balance when unsubstantiated rumours swirled through the Canberra press gallery suggesting that she and her chief of staff were involved in a love triangle with Ellis’s male advisor.
“To realise that a senior journalist in the parliamentary press gallery was making inquiries and the story that went that we were both having relationship with the gentleman in our office …… we were really quite shocked it was happening,” says friend and former Chief of Staff Shannon Rees.
“I knew if that story ran it would be career-ending for me,” says Ellis.
When she left Canberra, Ellis decided to write a book outside of party political lines, interviewing female politicians from across the spectrum about their experiences.
“I thought it was a fantastic idea,” says husband and journalist David Penberthy. “There’s a lot of discussion around these things that are really cloistered and never break out into the popular press.”
What emerged was a prescient and damning story of a toxic and misogynistic culture.
Every woman spoke frankly to Ellis about their experiences of a systemic misogyny in parliament – and with an at times complicit media – and about the corrosive impact of living and working inside such a destructive culture.
Interviews include Karen Andrews, Julia Banks, Tanya Plibersek, Sharman Stone, Natasha Stott-Despoja, Sarah Hanson-Young
Producers: Olivia Rousset and Jennifer Feller.
Watch Chamber of Silence on Monday 29 March at 8pm on ABC TV + iview.
You can watch replays on ABC NEWS channel on Wednesdays at 12:30am, Saturdays at 6:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm and 9:30pm. All times are AEDT.