‘Unacceptably high’ rate of bullying, sexual harassment and assault in parliament, inquiry finds

By Melissa Coade

November 30, 2021

(AAP/Lukas Koch)

The prime minister has released the final report of a seven-month-long inquiry into parliamentary workplaces undertaken by the sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, which has found that more than half of people in the building have experienced some form of bullying or harassment at work.

In a statement on Tuesday, Jenkins listed the reasons why this ‘unacceptably high’ rate of mistreatment was reported by 51% of people employed in a Commonwealth parliamentary workplace. 

“A lack of clear standards of conduct, limited accountability and power imbalances, combine with the high-intensity, high stakes nature of the work, the pursuit of political power and advantage, the frequent blurring of personal and professional life and the intense loyalty to political parties to create specific risk factors unique to this workplace,” Jenkins said.

The commissioner said that the individual contributions to the review — numbering more than 1,700 interviews, submissions and survey responses — painted a picture of a workplace in parliament that facilitated employee misconduct, or at the very least allowed a blind eye to be turned to it. 

“Throughout this review, we heard that these workplaces are not always safe environments for many people within them,” Jenkins said.

“We found current systems and reward structures encourage, tolerate and enable misconduct and processes that are not equipped to prevent or address the consequences of that behaviour,” she said. 

Speaking from parliament alongside minister for women Marise Payne and finance minister Simon Birmingham, the prime minister said the issues raised in the report — ostensibly about workplace safety and respect — were sensitive and difficult. 

The pm also recognised Brittany Higgins, a young Liberal staffer who this year revealed allegations of a rape, and whose story served as a lightening rod for calls to comprehensively change the complaints and investigations process in parliament. Her advocacy on the issue led to a review by Stephanie Foster, deputy secretary, governance at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and new avenues for recourse should any parliamentary staff member experience this type of mistreatment moving forward. 

Higgins’ complaint is currently moving through the ACT courts and Morrison said that although he must exercise care about what he could say about a pending legal matter, he regarded her voice as representing the experience of many others. Ms Higgins’ alleged experience was front of mind in a number of recent steps the government has taken to address workplace safety and respect, the pm said, including the establishment of a new complaints mechanism, and staff and ministerial training, with much more still to be done. 

“Her voice has been listened to – not just in the actions that we’ve already taken. But in the report that has been prepared by Kate Jenkins,” Morrison said of the former Liberal staffer.

“[Higgins’] voice has spoken for many as this report shows, and the concerns and experiences that they have had in so many occupations working here in this building.”

The government overtures are a huge departure from some months ago when former defence minister Linda Reynolds was forced to apologise to Higgins for reports that she had called her former staffer a ‘lying cow’, referring to the historical rape allegations that Higgins claimed occurred in the minister’s office in 2019.

Higgins, who was recently named a visiting fellow at ANU’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership which is committed to improving workplace gender equality, said that she hoped the report would inspire swift action.

“I want to thank the many brave people who shared their stories which contributed to this review. I hope all sides of politics not only commit to but implement these recommendations in full,” Higgins said in a statement released by the institute.

One of the key takeaways of Jenkins’ ‘Set the Standard’ report was the strong loyalty and pride employees within parliament had for their work. A meaningful career in a parliamentary workplace was motivated by a genuine commitment to serve the nation but this could come at the cost of speaking out against mistreatment in the workplace. 

The pm said the way forward on improving respect and safety in parliament was a multi-party, non-partisan effort. He also signalled that strengthening workplace processes to eliminate such conduct would be a long and ongoing process.

“The [findings of this report] are not new to this place and as applied to governments, workplaces, past, present, going back over a long period of time. It’s important to understand that because this sort of culture doesn’t appear in a short period of time,” Morrison said. 

“We all share in the ownership of the problems that are set out in this report. But we all share in implementing solutions as well, and we each had a role to play,” he said. 

At a launch event for the report in Sydney, Jenkins said there was not one homogenous workplace culture to reform but that a system-wide change was needed. Her report made 28 recommendations for change to support all parts of the parliament to perform at their best and bring its work environment into line with Australian workplace standards. 

“In designing the recommendations, we have balanced the need for clear standards, and an independent complaints body to enforce those standards, with the need to establish professional systems and processes to support people and bring this workplace into line with other Australian workplaces,” Jenkins said.

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