Sex discrimination commissioner to probe parliamentary workplace culture, including sexual harassment

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday March 5, 2021

WA will operate a proposed 1,000 bed quarantine facility in the state, with half of those beds expected to be ready in seven months.
WA will operate a proposed 1,000 bed quarantine facility in the state, with half of those beds expected to be ready in seven months. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins will lead an independent probe into the way Parliament House treats and responds to allegations of sexual harassment and assault, finance minister Simon Birmingham announced on Friday.

At a press conference Birmingham said the commissioner would consider how to change the culture and practices within parliamentary workplaces, as well as how to ensure the commonwealth has “the best possible environment for prevention and response” to instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and bullying.

The announcement comes just two days after attorney-general Christian Porter identified himself as the minister at the centre of historical rape allegations, and less than a month after former ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a colleague at Parliament House in 2019.


READ MORE Christian Porter comes forward as minister accused of historical rape, denies allegations


Last year Jenkins released her report on a national inquiry into sexual harassment in workplaces[email protected] — which found sexual harassment to be “prevalent and pervasive” within Australian workplaces.

In a statement following Friday’s press conference, the commissioner encouraged current and former Parliament House and ministerial staff to take part in the review by sharing their experiences.

“Your contributions will build a safer, more respectful workplace for everyone,” Jenkins said.

With cross-party support and through the experiences of staff members, the review would provide the basis for “long term positive cultural reform to make our parliament safe and respectful”, she said.

The Australian Human Rights Commission will support Jenkins to conduct the review. She will deliver her final report in November.


READ MORE: Political staffers don’t trust their bosses to investigate sexual harassment reports impartially, CPSU survey finds


The Community and Public Sector Union has welcomed the probe, but argued that action on sexual harassment was well overdue.

“This review must lead to meaningful change — it can no longer be the case that standards of behaviour unacceptable in other workplaces go unchecked in the nation’s parliament,” it said in a statement.

“It has been one year today since the sex discrimination commissioner released the [email protected] report, making 55 recommendations on what can be done to address sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet the Morrison government has failed to implement any of these recommendations.

“The prime minister could have, and should have, already taken steps to implement these recommendations and ensure safety at work.”

Last week the union released survey results which found that most political staffers who have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or assault in the workplace didn’t report it because they thought it wouldn’t make a difference, or out of fear for their job.

The independent review has been prompted by Higgins’ allegations, and was originally going to be undertaken by Curtin MP and former university vice chancellor Celia Hammond.

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster has been looking into the workplace complaints processes at Parliament House, while PM&C boss Phil Gaetjens has been investigating which staff in the prime minister’s office knew of Higgins’ allegations before they were made public.


READ MORE: PM&C official to review complaints process following sexual assault allegations


 

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