Australian MPs can opt to participate in one-hour sexual harassment training

By Melissa Coade

Friday July 16, 2021

Anne Ruston-Sarah Hanson-Young-Jenny McAllister
Manager of government business in the Senate Anne Ruston (right) speaks to Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Labor Senator Jenny McAllister during debate in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Critics have slammed the basic training for people working at parliament house that will be implemented in response to the alleged historical rape of staffer Brittany Higgins by a colleague in a minister’s office

The Mandarin has viewed government tender documents approaching organisations in the market who can ‘deliver training to promote a safe and respectful workplace’. Tenders will be accepted for the work until 6 August, 2021 and it is expected the service provider can start its work in September this year.

The optional training program for MPs, introduced in response to the Foster review of systemic workplace issues dealing with such problems, will be offered to parliamentarians in a one hour face-to-face training setting. 

Junior staff will be offered a longer two-hour training program, which could be mandatory. 

The training will be delivered at either parliament house in Canberra or in MPs’ electorate offices, with office managers and chiefs of staff required to attend. 

PM’s expectation that everyone will participate

Minister for women’s safety Senator Anne Ruston told ABC News on Thursday that while the training was not mandatory for MPs, it was prime minister Scott Morrison’s expectation that all parliamentarians would take up the offer to participate and encourage their staff to do so also. 

“The prime minister has been very strong that his expectation is that people will avail themselves of this training,” Ruston said.

“I’m sure he will be very strong in his words around making sure that all of the Liberal MPs and senators undertake this training.”

Ruston added that she believed every person in parliament – irrespective of political allegiance – should be holding each other to account and seeking the training program out.

“If we want to have Australia’s best workplace, then this training is something that would be a huge benefit to everybody,” Ruston said.

“I for one will be making sure that I undertake it and staff in my office, I know, were very keen to participate as well.”

The sexual harassment training is the government’s answer to senior public servant Stephanie Foster’s recommendation to implement ‘a face-to-face education program helping managers and staff understand their obligations in relation to a safe and respectful workplace, and to recognise and respond appropriately to serious incidents or patterns of behaviour in the workplace’ at parliament. The recommendation did suggest that the training be voluntary. 

Foster, a PM&C deputy secretary, governance, was asked by Morrison to review the procedures and processes for responding to serious incidents at Parliament House, including sexual assault. 

Training may help in absence of standards 

In her report, Foster outlined that leadership had a central role to play in prioritising workplace safety and ensuring a healthy reporting culture. But she also highlighted that employees who held important leadership positions were not subject to a ‘clearly articulated standard of conduct’ for those parliamentarians or MoP(S) Act staff who do not fall into the category of minister or ministerial staff.

According to recommendation five of the report, ongoing training should be designed to equip parliamentarians, managers and staff to understand their workplace health and safety responsibilities, to provide them with the tools to promote safe and respectful workplaces and to respond appropriately to instances of unacceptable behaviour. 

“While parliamentarians should retain the primary responsibility for resolving issues within their workplace, supported by the Serious Incident Team and enhanced support, training and education measures, confidence in the system relies on the ability to hold parliamentarians accountable where they do not meet their obligations with respect to providing a safe and respectful workplace,” the Review of the parliamentary workplace report read.

“It is important that education for staff and parliamentarians is delivered in a way that genuinely supports them to understand their rights and responsibilities in the workplace, what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and how to respond to serious incidents when they occur.”

Foster said the training should help inform bystanders who witnessed or heard about misconduct or harassment know what to do. The training should ensure participants understood their work health and safety (WHS) obligations, felt supported to respond to serious incidents, and promoted a respectful workplace culture.

“This will assist staff and managers to know what to do if they witness unacceptable behaviours, how to keep themselves safe and how to communicate with an impacted staff member in a supportive way that does no further harm. 

“Better management of incidents when they first occur will achieve the best outcome for all involved and can prevent escalation of the unsafe behaviour and the need for formal workplace actions,” the report said. 

“[The training] could also involve discussions on effective communication and listening skills, including how to respond to a staff member who discloses sexual harassment, bullying and violence and the language to be used to do no further harm and best support them,” Foster’s recommendation added.

Initial measures scratch the surface

Foster further advised that the finance department should remain responsible for human resources and WHS processes at parliament, including overall policies, general training and resources. 

When Foster’s report was published in May, Higgins expressed anger that in the two years since her alleged rape, the policies for policies for dealing with serious incidents in parliament had not changed. 

“The fact that no changes have been made to the processes and procedures for security inside Parliament House defies belief,” Higgins posted in a since deleted message to Twitter.

“Mistakes are inevitable. For the department to choose not to act in any way — over the past two years — to improve protocols is downright negligent.

“Honestly, regular licensed venues have more strenuous entry conditions and duty of care to their patrons than Parliament House has to their own staff.”

Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, is also currently leading an inquiry into the treatment of workers in the parliamentary workplace, and will accept submissions until the end of July. Jenkins’ final report is due in November this year. 

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