Federal parliament has acknowledged the bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault experienced by staff in a statement as MPs resumed sitting for 2022.
Prime minister Scott Morrison also delivered a formal apology to former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, saying: “I am sorry. We are sorry. I am sorry to Ms Higgins for the terrible things that took place here”.
A bipartisan taskforce chaired by former public servant Kerri Hartland put together a statement of acknowledgement.
The statement was the first recommendation of sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ report into parliamentary workplaces, which was initiated following Higgins’ allegations she was raped in a ministerial office.
Independent MP Zali Steggall, a member of the taskforce speaking before the acknowledgement, said the statement was a first step in recognising people who participated in the Jenkins report had been heard.
“I think it’s very important that this statement does bring some level of – it’s not going to be closure – it will be acknowledgement to so many people that they have been heard, we are listening and that we are changing,” Steggall told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“The standards have not been as they should have been, there is no doubt about that.”
Jenkins’ report found 51% of people employed in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces (CPWs) had experienced some form of bullying or sexual harassment.
Women experienced sexual harassment and bullying at a higher rate than men, the report showed, and perpetrators were more often in a more powerful position than the person experiencing the behaviour.
The report recommended the parliament publicly acknowledge staff experiences of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.
“It would be an important demonstration by leaders in these workplaces that they acknowledge the experiences, recent and past, and are committed to working together to ensure CPWs are safe and respectful,” Jenkins said.
The government was criticised for not inviting key advocates to the acknowledgement but several former staffers were in attendance on Tuesday.
Steggall said she had requested guests be allowed to attend the gallery, with attendance more challenging than usual due to COVID requirements and protests outside parliament.
“Parliament house is closed at the moment, we don’t have the normal guest arrangements,” she said, adding that all participants in the Jenkins Review had been informed the statement would be made.
The statement follows the taskforce holding its first meeting on Thursday. The taskforce was itself the second recommendation of the report.
Hartland — who spent 30 years in the APS, was the first woman to be deputy director-general of ASIO, and now works in the private sector — is the independent chair of the taskforce.
The taskforce, which also includes three members of the government, three of the opposition, a Greens MP and Steggall from the crossbench, will develop and inform the public of a plan to address Jenkins’ recommendations.
It will define and communicate “common values” to drive cultural change across parliamentary workplaces, make an annual progress report public, and track key measures of a safe and respectful work environment on a quarterly basis.