The Community and Public Sector Union has warned that the Department of Parliamentary Services’ decision to toughen its media policy could lead to codes of conduct being used to silence employees more often.
This week the Canberra Times revealed that DPS staff could face up to two years in jail if they speak to the media without permission from their secretary, under a media policy that came into effect on March 17.
The policy was introduced a month after former ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins first publicly alleged she was raped by a colleague at Parliament House in 2019, and just days before a Four Corners episode on those allegations aired. The Canberra Times reported it just this week and said the department told it the policy had been in the works since late 2020.
DPS staff who work outside of the departmental media team have been told to ‘exercise caution’ when speaking with journalists or unknown people, and to get permission before responding to the media.
Employees who fail to follow the policy have been warned that they could face up to two years in prison if they are found to have breached the Criminal Code Act.
The CPSU told The Mandarin that the department has a history of using codes of conduct to silence employees.
“The Department Parliamentary Services has long used code of conducts heavy-handedly to force DPS workers to stay silent on issues. The tightening of the department’s media and communications policy will only lead to an increased likelihood of code of conducts being used,” CPSU deputy national secretary Beth Vincent-Pietsch said in a statement.
Meanwhile, CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly took to social media to criticise the policy.
“This is a heavy-handed response from a dept that has form on this issue,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Workers in Parliament House deserve better and if we want to know the truth about what happens in this building, we should support these frontline workers.”
In a submission to an inquiry into the operation and management of the department in October, the union highlighted a range of issues within DPS, including problems relating to communication, management practices, ICT capacity, and workplace culture.
The submission noted that a staff survey conducted by the union uncovered issues with accountability and transparency, bullying and harassment, and career progression.
Vincent-Pietsch said the department should take note of the evidence given to the inquiry, and ‘reflect on the toxic environment it has created’.
“The CPSU surveyed its members last year and results showed staff are increasingly concerned that DPS is not a good place to work,” she said in a statement.
“Just under half of Parliament House Security stated they were comfortable raising issues with their direct manager without fear of reprimand or consequence, and four in five said they were uncomfortable or very uncomfortable approaching management with any day to day work specific policy issues.
“Our members in DPS play critical roles in our democracy and the community expects that our national parliament be a model employer, unfortunately that is far from the truth.”