Labor wants retrospective powers for new parliamentary complaints mechanism

By Melissa Coade

Wednesday June 23, 2021

Stephanie Foster
Stephanie Foster. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Federal Labor has responded to Stephanie Foster’s review of the parliamentary workplace by advocating for a broader remit to be given to a proposed parliamentary complaints mechanism, such that it can investigate serious incidents that involve former workers. 

Foster, who is deputy secretary, governance at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, was asked by the government to conduct her review in the wake of allegations former staffer Brittany Higgins was raped in a minister’s office by a parliamentary colleague. ACT prosecutors are now considering a partial brief of evidence about the alleged 2019 incident.

Foster made a number of recommendations that aimed to ensure processes for responding to serious incidents are independent, empower victims, and provide victims with adequate support. 

Foster recommended that the independent mechanism to investigate serious incidents should deal only with complaints that related to the current term of parliament, and where the parties either remained employed by parliament or under the Member of Parliamentary Staff Act ‘in its initial phase’.

The impact of this restriction is that complaints such as those made by Higgins would not fall under the remit of the new mechanism.

The Guardian reports that Labor shadow ministers Don Farrell, Tanya Plibersek and Katy Gallagher have co-signed a letter responding to Foster’s report. In their letter the MPs say they support the idea of the new scheme but ‘are of the view that there should be the capacity to entertain complaints, at least on a discretionary basis, up to six months after the departure or termination of a complainant’.

The three MPs have indicated that alleged incidents which occurred between the 2019 election and the introduction of the new mechanism should be considered ‘regardless of whether and when the complainant has departed’.

“If the exclusion as currently drafted stands, capacity to investigate a serious issue of sexual harassment or bullying can be frustrated simply by terminating a potential complainant’s employment or coercing their resignation,” the shadow ministers wrote in a letter sighted by The Guardian.

“This cannot be the intent of the proposed scheme. Options to address behaviour by the alleged respondent, or managerial responses to that behaviour even if the respondent has left employment, should also be explored.”

Farrell, Plibersek and Gallagher go on to suggest privilege and parliamentary sovereignty issues will need to be further clarified before the new mechanism is introduced to ensure that control of after-hours access to parliament house does not ‘diminish parliamentary privilege’.

An urgent change that Foster urged the government to implement in her report was the establishment of a 24/7, independent, confidential and trauma-informed phone support line for all staff and parliamentarians. She also advised more normalised human resources practices be adopted for parliamentary staff.

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