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Safe public service workplaces: the starting point for change

In February 2022, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate delivered statements of acknowledgement in both chambers, fulfilling a key recommendation of a report exposing the unsafe nature of parliamentary workplaces.

That report, the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, was the result of consultations and research overseen by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins. It held a mirror to the political and public service establishment, forcing leaders to confront issues that made these workplaces difficult, discriminatory and dangerous.

The Jenkins report followed numerous stories published and broadcast in the media detailing allegations of sexual assault or harassment committed by politicians or parliamentary staffers. These stories emerged at a time the #metoo movement amplified calls in Australia and elsewhere for a more concerted effort to end workplace abuse and harassment.

“Many Australian workplaces have recognised that a safe and respectful workplace culture influences their ability to attract and retain the best people, drive organisational performance as well as to manage what are now significant reputational and legal risks,” the report says.

“Parliamentary workplaces are not immune from these issues, nor from the scrutiny that is being brought to bear in relation to them.”

The report notes that the parliament sets legislation for workplace conduct, but trust in the legislature evaporates if it’s observed that standards parliamentarians impose on others aren’t complied with by the rule-makers themselves.

“As well as legislating the standards which the wider community should adopt, [parliamentary workplaces] must model these standards themselves,” the report says.

“As well as ensuring a safe and respectful work environment, the opportunities that are then created include the chance to attract and retain the best parliamentarians and staff; to drive institutional performance; and, by supporting diversity, equality and inclusion, to improve representation and decision-making overall.”

Jenkins’ report took feedback from 1723 people and 33 organisations with four different methods used to get the accounts and experiences of employees working within parliamentary workplaces. There were 935 survey responses, 490 interviews, 302 written submissions and 11 focus groups that revealed a litany of abuses.

“Many people, both current and former staff, have had meaningful careers in parliamentary workplaces, motivated by a genuine commitment to contribute to the nation’s success,” Jenkins said when the report was released.

“Over half (51%) of all people currently in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces have experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault in a CPW. That is unacceptably high.”

Research done for the Jenkins report shows that women were more likely to be bullied or sexually harassed than men. Sexual harassment was experienced by 40% of women and 26% of men, while 42% of women and 32% of men reported bullying.

Further, 77% of those who work in parliamentary workplaces have experienced, witnessed or heard about bullying, sexual harassment and actual or attempted sexual assault.

Unsafe workplace factors

A significant contributor to the cultural problems that led to unsafe parliamentary workplaces is the imbalance of power between politicians and their staff. The report says that it was accepted that power itself has a role in such workplaces but that the misuse of that power, the fear of those that wield that power, and the entitlement of those that held it created problems.

“Participants from the parliamentary departments highlighted unreasonable demands and harassment by parliamentarians and [Members of Parliament (Staff) Act] employees, built on a culture of service and subservience with an expectation that ‘we are meant to be providing a service at any cost … irrespective of how the members behave’,” the report says.

Other factors that were cited as contributors to a toxic work culture include but were not limited to the difficulty of sanctioning parliamentarians for inappropriate conduct because politicians don’t have employers in the usual sense. The report says a respondent noted that there was no risk of a parliamentarian getting the sack or being held accountable.

Another issue raised by respondents is harassment or abuse of power isn’t something that flows from top to bottom. Staff working in a parliamentary environment that are dissatisfied with the employer know that they could threaten to take issues to the media because they understand how the media works within the parliamentary precinct.

House of Representatives speaker Andrew Wallace told the parliament and survivors of harassment and sexual assault present in the public gallery that both parliamentary chambers recognise that past behaviours were unacceptable.

“This place and its members are committed to bringing about lasting and meaningful change to both culture and practice within our workplaces,” Wallace said. “We have failed to provide this in the past.

“We today declare our personal and collective commitment to make the changes required. We will aspire, as we should, to set the standard for our nation.”

Wallace told the parliament that action had already begun to take place to reform the way in which complaints from staff would be handled.

“Last year, we established a new independent complaints process and began providing trauma-informed support for people who have experienced serious incidents working in the parliament,” Wallace said.

“Members, senators and staff have undertaken professional workplace training. Parliamentarians must uphold the highest standards and be accountable for delivering required actions.

“We know that cultural change has to come from the top – it has to be role modelled and championed by all of us.”

Senate president Slade Brockman said the parliament could not undo the harm done in the past but can acknowledge its mistakes.

“Parliamentary workers feel pride in working for their country, and the privilege and honour of making a difference for the Australian people,” Brockman said. “However, for far too many, it has not been safe or respectful.”

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