Union calls for code of conduct, sexual harassment policy to keep parliamentary staff safe

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday August 9, 2021

Academics and former officials pin hopes on diplomatic communications remaining open.  (Olga K/Adobe)

The Community and Public Sector Union has called on the government to implement a behavioural code of conduct for all parliamentarians that explicitly bans sexual harassment, bullying and and discrimination, while introducing sanctions for breaches of the code.

The union has included the proposed measures in a submission to the independent probe into parliamentary workplace culture, which is being led by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins.

The review was established just days after former attorney-general Christian Porter identified himself as the minister at the centre of historical rape allegations, and less than a month after former ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a colleague at Parliament House in 2019.

Parliamentarians play a key role in creating safe or dangerous workplaces, according to CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly. She has urged the government to take this role seriously, and to ensure all steps are taken to educate parliamentarians on their obligations as employers.

“The Morrison government has to do more than talk about safety, they must act on the inquiry recommendations and not sit on them like they did to the Respect at Work report. Although, if the hour optional training for parliamentarians that the government has proposed is a measure of its commitment, then the government has failed to understand the gravity of the issue,” Donnelly said on Monday.

“CPSU members do important work for our democracy and should expect safe workplaces free from bullying and sexual harassment like every other Australian. At the heart of the government response must be victim centric risk mitigation and an acknowledgement that they must and should do better.”

Read more: Higgins’ alleged perpetrator to face court

Among its 19 recommendations, the CPSU has called for the government to immediately implement all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report, and to establish an independent human resources body responsible for overseeing employment practices in parliamentary offices, supporting staff, and holding parliamentarians accountable.

The union has also suggested that an enforceable sexual harassment policy that is based on current best practice be developed and implemented.

While the CPSU has endorsed the victim-centric and trauma-informed approach put forward by the recent Foster Review, it has raised concerns over the review’s proposed sanction model, in which Presiding Officers are given sole oversight. Instead, the union has recommended that there be an opportunity for multi-party involvement in the sanction process as it relates to parliamentarians.

For breaches of the proposed code of conduct, the union said a range of sanctions must be imposed, including restriction of staffing entitlements, travel privileges, committee membership
and suspension.

The government must also:

  • Acknowledge parliament’s historical failure to effectively address and prevent sexual harassment and bullying,
  • Commit to a collaborative risk mitigation approach which actively engages workers and their union to prevent and respond to workplace sexual harassment and bullying,
  • Implement mandatory, regular, face to face education and training on sexual harassment and discrimination for all parliamentarians, senior parliamentary staff, and staff,
  • Implement an annual anonymous survey to understand the experiences of parliamentary employees and monitor progress on prevention of workplace sexual harassment, sex-based harassment and bullying.

Jenkins expects to deliver her final report to the government in November.

Read more: Low politician participation revealed in interim report for review of workplace culture in parliament


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