The government has announced an independent complaints mechanism for serious incidents at Parliament House will be up and running within the next six weeks.
The mechanism is one of 10 recommendations made by Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster, who was tasked with reviewing parliamentary workplace processes in response to allegations that a former ministerial staffer was raped by a colleague in Parliament House in 2019.
In a joint statement on Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and finance minister Simon Birmingham announced the government had accepted all of Foster’s recommendations, including the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism for serious incidents.
“This mechanism will be overseen by the parliamentary service commissioner and will apply to incidents from the commencement of the current term of parliament,” they said.
“The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet will work with the parliamentary service commissioner to stand-up this mechanism within the next six weeks. The government will work with the speaker, the president and other parliamentary parties to operationalise the independent complaints mechanism.”
Morrison and Birmingham noted that the government has begun piloting a face-to-face training program for parliamentarians and their staff, with the training to be rolled out from September.
While the training was originally intended to be voluntary, Morrison and Birmingham said the program would be made compulsory for some.
“It will be mandatory for all coalition ministers and staff, and it is expected that all other parliamentarians and their staff will undertake this training when it is available to them,” they said.
The government has indicated it will work with the opposition, minor parties and independents to develop a public register of parliamentarians who have undertaken the training.
“Parliamentarians are answerable to their constituents and therefore the government agrees with Ms Foster’s recommendation that a public register would instil confidence that parliamentarians were undertaking the necessary actions,” Morrison and Birmingham said.
Speaking to reporters following the announcement, Birmingham warned that the mandatory training was ‘a requirement in terms of continuing to serve as a minister’.
The Foster Review, which was handed to the government in May and released publicly the following month, 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’.
The report revealed the Department of Finance’s Ministerial and Parliamentary Services team has received 76 complaints since July 2017. 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.
Brittany Higgins — the former ministerial staffer whose allegations prompted the Foster Review — has welcomed the government’s decision to accept all recommendations.
“These reforms, most notably the independent complaints mechanism, will ensure Parliament House is a safer workplace for all future employees,” she wrote on Twitter.
The government has thanked Foster for her report, noting that her recommendations would pave the way for the implementation of important reforms ahead of sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ report into commonwealth parliamentary workplaces, which is expected to be delivered to government later this year.
Birmingham told reporters that Jenkins’ review would build upon Foster’s recommendations, and would ‘bring further expertise to the table’.
“And I encourage all of those current and former parliamentary staff, current and former members of parliament and others who have worked in parliamentary workplaces to engage with commissioner Jenkins and to make submissions and participate in her review to ensure that it can be as thorough as possible,” he said.