Barnaby Joyce says you can’t ‘redesign people’s brains’ with empathy training

The Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce has cast doubt on government-ordered empathy training, saying you can’t “redesign people’s brains” to learn an “innate” skill.

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Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

The former deputy prime minister has also questioned whether parliament’s hostile environment is conducive to empathetic behaviour, saying it is a more “difficult” workplace than that of the corporate world.

Joyce’s comments come after Liberal MP Andrew Laming was forced to undergo empathy training following complaints about his behaviour towards women, including taking a photograph of a woman bending over and the alleged online harassment of constituents.

© Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images
Barnaby Joyce does not believe the type of empathy training ordered for Andrew Laming is effective.

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While Laming has announced he will quit politics at the next election, he remains a member of the Liberal National party and will continue to sit on the government benches where the Coalition holds a one-seat majority.

Joyce, who volunteered to attend an empathy training session organised by the Sydney Morning Herald, said he did not believe the type of empathy training ordered for Laming was effective.

“I don’t think you can actually redesign people’s brains, but you can create the environment where people feel protected at work, and I think that’s what we have got to do,” Joyce told Channel Seven on Monday.

“I don’t think you can teach someone empathy. You can instruct them about what the guidelines are they need to work within, and if they don’t want to work within them, they don’t have a job. That, I suppose you can do.”

Joyce’s comments come as the government prepares to formally respond to the [email protected] report, the culmination of a national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace undertaken by the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins.

The government, which announced the national inquiry in June 2018, has also asked Jenkins to undertake a “bespoke” inquiry into the workplace culture of Parliament House, following an allegation by former government staffer Brittany Higgins that she was raped by a colleague in a minister’s office.

On Monday, another Morrison government staffer, Josie Coles, came forward with details of alleged bullying by senior staff in the office of the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, in 2018. Wyatt denies the allegations against his office.

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The rolling crisis for the government over the alleged mistreatment of women prompted the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to last week announce a reshuffle that promoted women and a new cabinet taskforce on women’s issues that would bring a “fresh lens” to government deliberations.

But Joyce, who was relegated to the backbench following an extramarital affair with a staffer and a separate complaint of alleged harassment, an allegation he denied, said parliament was “overwhelmingly a decent place”.

“I think it’s really important that people understand that there’s not this sort of ubiquitous, generic craziness in Parliament House – overwhelmingly, it’s a decent place.”

But he said because of the adversarial nature of parliament, empathy was not always a key consideration when your goal was to “take out” your opponent.

“It’s different, it’s not like working for the ANZ bank, where we all want the bank to go well, or Channel Seven where everybody wants Channel Seven to go well. It’s a strange environment.”

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