Review puts parliamentary bullying, sexual harassment and assault on the table

By Melissa Coade

Tuesday June 1, 2021

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Parliamentary staff, including interns, subcontractors and contractors, will be given a voice about their treatment in the workplace as part of a review led by Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

The review was established by the federal government with bipartisan support following recent public revelations about an alleged rape that had occurred in a minister’s office in 2019, and that had involved ministerial staffers. Brittany Higgins, the alleged victim of the ordeal, who came forward to tell her story, met with the Prime Minister in April and plans to release a memoir that further outlines her experience.

The review is being overseen by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and will travel to capital cities between June and July to hear in person about the workplace experiences of these employees. 

Jenkins said that she hoped to hear from all workers at Parliament House — there are more than 3,500 people who presently work in the building  — about their negative and positive experiences.

“Their contributions will both inform the review and help to build a safer, more respectful workplace for everyone,” she said. 

Over the next two months the AHRC will meet with interviewees in Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Parramatta, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Townsville, Brisbane and Darwin. It will also conduct phone and videoconference interviews should witnesses experience difficulties attending the meetings in person due to travel restrictions.

Questions to current and former employees will be asked about the workplace culture of commonwealth parliamentary workplaces, risk factors contributing to bullying and harassment behaviours, and the worker’s understanding of what policies and processes exist to support them.

Not only does the AHRC seek to understand the ‘experiences and expectations’ of current and former parliamentary staff, but it will also examine the adequacy of current support available.

The review terms of reference indicate that it will consult widely. In addition, a number of current or former MOP(S) Act staff will be nominated to act as reference points for Commissioner Jenkins. 

“This doesn’t just mean politicians and their staff, though we obviously encourage them to contribute. We want to hear from anyone who works within the Parliament or electorate offices, in any role,” Jenkins added. 

People contributing to the review may have previously worked in electorate offices, and include volunteers, interns and students in federal workplaces. The terms of reference for the review also welcomes testimony from workers within the Parliament of Australia who have been employed by hospitality, retail, cleaning, security and other service providers.

Parliamentary employees can lodge a written submission or participate in an interview for the review. In person interviews will take approximately 45-60 minutes and be recorded with the permission of participants. A support person is also welcome to attend the interview process with the main interviewee.

“The commission will transcribe your interview recording so that it has an accurate account of the information you share. All transcripts will be kept confidential,” an information flyer about the process reads.

“If you experience distress or discomfort while participating in this review, you can choose not to answer certain questions, skip questions, or stop participating at any time. You may also choose to have someone you trust be present with you during your interview.”

Submissions to the review will not be considered to be a complaint or official report of misconduct but will be used to produce Kate Jenkins’ final report. The AHRC will publish a report in November setting out the commissioner’s findings and recommendations. A progress update will be made available in July.

The AHRC said that referral pathways to counselling and other support would be provided to participants where needed. Specialist trauma counselling or other support services would also be offered where appropriate. 

The review will be accepting submissions until 31 July 2021.


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