A review into the handling of workplace complaints at Parliament House has found current processes ‘are not fit for purpose’ for responding to serious incidents, including sexual assault, and must be overhauled.
The review, conducted by Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster and published on Friday, was sparked by former ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegations that she was raped by a colleague in Parliament House in 2019.
The Department of Finance’s Ministerial and Parliamentary Services team has received 76 complaints since July 2017, Foster’s report revealed. Half of the total complaints related to the conduct of a parliamentarian, seven were referred to an external investigation, and five related to sexual harassment.
During consultations, the review heard a ‘strong case for change’ within Parliament House, particularly in regard to creating a safe space for staff to report serious incidents.
“It is a watershed moment for the Parliament, and an opportunity to change the way it balances its pressured, complex, inherently insecure and intensely political environment with its legal and ethical obligations to provide a safe and respectful workplace,” it said.
“Unacceptable behaviour, whether by parliamentarians or staff, inflicts damage on everyone and undermines the legitimacy and authority of the Parliament, and its ability to attract and retain high quality staff.”
Foster found the current complaints processes at Parliament House ‘are not fit for purpose’ when it comes to dealing with serious incidents such as sexual assault, as they are ‘tailored to responding to less serious workplace incidents’. She also uncovered a disconnect between the handling of complaints by Finance and employing parliamentarians’ ability to take action when those complaints are substantiated, as well as a lack of consequences if the offender is a parliamentarian.
In response to the need for independent, best-practice processes that are able to handle complex trauma, respond effectively in a crisis, and operate with a high level of sensitivity and confidentiality, the Foster Review has made ten recommendations.
Among those recommendations, the review has called for a new framework for reporting and responding to serious incidents with three core elements: trauma-informed support services; an independent, confidential complaints mechanism; and tailored education and support for all staff, managers and parliamentarians.
The framework should be underpinned by clear expectations of appropriate workplace behaviour, and should be funded until the end of the 2021-22 financial year, the report said.
The review has recommended that an independent complaints mechanism be established. As part of this, a trauma-informed, client-centric, confidential, and independent Serious Incident Team should be created. With a presence in Parliament House, the team would give staff advice, support, and debriefing services, and would facilitate local resolution of incidents. The team would also have the power to appoint independent experts and provide referrals to specialised support services as well as the police.
The team would be integrated with the parliamentary system, enabling a strategic response to the ‘overall picture of risks, hotspots and trends built up over time’, the report said.
“The Serious Incident Team could also facilitate an independent, confidential workplace review. Over time, the review envisages that confidence in the pathways to resolve issues more effectively, including the prospect of consequences for poor behaviour, would result in more staff coming forward, rather than feeling as though their only option was to leave or to engage with the media,” it said.
To achieve meaningful change and restore trust and confidence, parliamentarians must ‘clearly articulate’ that assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and bullying and harassment are unacceptable in their workplaces, the report recommended.
A 24/7 Parliamentary Support Line — 1800 APH SPT — was established on March 2. The report has recommended that the line be continued, in conjunction with support provided by the Serious Incident Team.
The report noted that, where Department of Parliamentary Services officers or police are the first to identify or respond to a serious incident within Parliament House, they should provide advice on avenues for assistance — including the support line and the complaints mechanism contact channels — in addition to their standard operating procedures, as well as report the incident to the Serious Incident Team.
Foster has also recommended that all after-hours access to Parliament House be logged and reported to office managers, and that a taskforce be established in PM&C to implement the recommendations.
The review noted that Finance is currently developing a stand-alone, best practice sexual harassment policy, which the Community and Public Sector Union has questioned.
“It defies logic that the review notes the department is now working on its own stand-alone sexual harassment policy, when at every turn they have blocked or ignored CPSU members calls for such a policy, including rejecting a drafted stand along policy, with no reason or feedback,” CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said.
The union wrote to finance minister Simon Birmingham last month regarding the implementation of the review’s recommendations and requesting consultation with staff. He is yet to respond.
“It’s not enough for minister Birmingham to consult politicians, who are in some cases part of the problem, the next stages of the implementation must focus on the very workers that the policies concern,” Donnelly said.