Clarity needed on healthy and safe parliamentary work environment, departments say

By Jackson Graham

October 26, 2021

Kate Jenkins
Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins. (AAP Image/David Moir)

Australian parliamentary workplaces need a clearer overarching system or explanatory statement for delivering a healthy and safe environment, say submissions to sex discrimination commission Kate Jenkins. 

A number of departments made the submissions to Jenkins’ Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, which examines the workplace culture, experiences, expectations, and barriers to reporting bullying, sexual harassment and assault in parliamentary workplaces. 

Federal regulator and workers’ compensation insurer Comcare said it was unclear who was responsible for directing Members of Parliament (Staff) Act workers regarding Workplace Health and Safety matters and holding them accountable for behaviours. 

It also raised the ambiguity about the influence, control, authority and accountability of the Department of Finance regarding the parliamentary workplaces. 

In its submission, Comcare recommended “a clear articulation” for all duty holders about their due diligence under the Work Health and Safety Act, and a review to remove ambiguity in the broader safety system around parliamentary workplaces.

The Department of Finance, in its submission, said the majority of workers employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act worked outside Canberra in electorate offices, including in regional areas. 

“While the overarching frameworks for offices are the same … the structure and management of each office is a matter for each parliamentarian, and in some instances their senior staff, and reflect the particular circumstances of that office,” the submission states. 

Based on previous reviews of other jurisdictions, the submission highlighted parliamentary workplaces had high-intensity culture, with power-dynamics that were risk factor for bullying and harassment. 

It also acknowledged there could be significant barriers to making complaints because of political loyalties and potential for negative career impacts. 

The department highlighted opportunity to “clearly identify and differentiate” administrators’, parliamentarians’ and senior supervising staff roles that prevented and responded to work health and safety risks. 

While there is no consistent approach across other levels of government, the submission pointed to standout qualities in other jurisdictions, which include mandatory training for staff, codes of conduct, and an empowered entity other than individual parliamentarians to employ staff or take action on misconduct.

The Department of Parliamentary Services pointed out that reports of bullying and harassment in its workplaces were relatively low, after receiving between three and six complaints a year since 2016-17. 

Its submission says public perceptions of a negative workplace culture at parliament house “adversely reflects on” the 1500 public servants in four parliamentary departments that support the parliament. 

The department said it would expand and refine high-quality and mandatory training to educate and support staff to identify and address inappropriate behaviour, bullying or harassment.

The submission also highlighted that “collective scrutiny” from media and senate estimate hearings “generates a fear among our staff that human error will result in extreme consequences”. 

“This fear stifles innovation and generates resistance to change,” the department’s submission says, highlighting this creates a unique and challenging operating environment to manage. 

Comcare announced on Monday it would host a two-day national forum on November 11 and 12 on the prevention, management and regulation of workplace sexual harassment.

The event is part of the implementation of the Roadmap for Respect: Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces report.


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