ANU: Parliament must lead efforts to create a safe workplace

The Australian Human Rights Commission has delivered a landmark report which provides an extremely comprehensive plan of how to improve safety in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces. Two aspects of the recommendations are particularly powerful and will be critical in creating change.

The creation of parliamentary bodies to establish accountability and lead change

The Jenkins Review recommends that a Joint Standing Committee on Parliamentary Standards be established, as well as ‘a consultative parliamentary body’ which would recommend and endorse new policies and procedures for managing MOPS Staff. These new permanent bodies within parliament are vital pieces of architecture to enable parliament to manage conduct in its workplaces.

Parliament has no specific powers in the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, known as the MOPS Act, under which staff of minister and parliamentarians are employed. The Act does not include formal oversight mechanisms. The Act creates no role for parliament in managing and leading the workforce which supports its members. Because of this lack of authority, parliament cannot currently provide guidance, set conditions or enact consequences for actions in its own workplace.

In other countries, such as the UK, New Zealand and Canada, houses of parliament have governing bodies which establish policies and codes of conduct and provide the authority for complaints mechanisms and disciplinary procedures. These governing bodies have broad representation of all parties in parliament. In the UK, the House of Commons Commission also has ‘lay members’ (non parliamentarians). It has played a strong role in addressing problems of bullying and sexual harassment in its workplace, driving the establishment of a Behaviour Code which applies to all parliamentarians and staff who work in parliament. The New Zealand Parliamentary Service Commission has a Culture Subcommittee. A key part of its remit is to improve the culture of parliament.

The Australian federal parliament does not have equivalent governing bodies, leaving its Presiding Officers relatively weak. Without this governing architecture it is difficult for the parliament to establish policies on conduct or to hold its members accountable for their actions as employers.

Importantly the Review also recommends that a cross-party leadership taskforce be established to drive the implementation of the report’s recommendations. So far there has only been informal consultation between parties over these issues; this must become formalised. The Jenkins Review suggests the taskforce should be gender-balanced. Currently only the Privileges Committees have a role in cases of possible misconduct. However these committees are almost entirely composed of members of the two major party groupings, and have very few women members.

Public reporting on workforce indicators for staff, and progress on cultural change

The Jenkins Review recommends quarterly tracking of key workforce data and that this be tabled in parliament, as well as parliamentarians being required to report annually on what actions they have taken to ensure a safer workplace. It also recommends there be an annual parliamentary discussion about safety and respect in the parliamentary workplace. These suggestions seem almost revolutionary in the current context of extreme secrecy and silence about any matters relating to MOPs staff. This is quite different to the openness about the identities of staffers and discussion of staffing issues seen in other countries such as the UK or Canada. This secrecy contributes to a sense of entitlement by parliamentarians to act with impunity and contributes to the normalisation of poor conduct. Open discussion and public reporting of staffing issues is vital. It also acknowledges that safe working conditions for staff is a matter of interest for the entire community, not just politicians.

Leadership is vital for changing organisational culture. To create a safe workplace and achieve much-needed culture change, we must look to parliament to show sustained commitment and leadership. The Jenkins Review provides a clear way forward.

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