A “historic” investigation into bullying, sexual harassment and assault inside federal Parliament is set to rock politics over the course of this year.
Drastic changes are expected in how women working in the seat of government are treated by their powerful bosses and co-workers.
“I’ve never seen any moment like this,” said Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, who has been charged with spearheading the review.
It comes as Defence Minister Linda Reynolds – whose much-criticised response to allegations of rape from former staffer, Brittany Higgins, kickstarted calls for urgent change in Canberra – extends her medical leave by a further two weeks, raising more questions about her political future.
The bombshell claims from Ms Higgins, followed by another three Liberal Party women who made rape or harassment allegations against the same former ministerial staffer, forced Prime Minister Scott Morrison to launch four inquiries into culture inside Parliament and his party.
One of those, it was announced on Friday, will be helmed by Ms Jenkins and probe culture inside Parliament House.
That will include making sure “all Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful”, according to Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.
The review will also probe the “adequacy, effectiveness, independence, resourcing and awareness of current supports available” in preventing bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault, to bring Parliament up to best practices.
Ms Jenkins will deliver a progress update in July and a final report by November, ensuring discussions over these critical issues loom over nearly the entirety of 2021.
“We are at a moment for the broader community where … for people to come forward, it is very difficult,” she told the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
Ms Jenkins said that was true for broader society, but especially inside Parliament, where human resources processes and forums for staff complaints are murky, confusing and little understood.
Numerous parliamentary staffers have told The New Daily wildly different interpretations of their understanding of such processes, including how to report issues of bullying or misconduct, and how those reports will be handled.
The issues were starkly highlighted in the government’s response to Ms Higgins’ rape allegations, where pressure has come on Mr Morrison’s team to explain why her serious reports did not get a better response, and who should have been notified.
Despite the alleged rape occurring just metres from his own Parliament House office, Mr Morrison said he was not told of the incident until the story was published by media – even though a number of his ministers, senior MPs and staff were aware.
“There is some confusion, if you’re in a ministerial office, where you go,” Ms Jenkins said of how current processes operate.
“But I think laid on top of that, there is actually a view that that’s not the appropriate amount of independence, and so in addition to that, a real fear of using the mechanisms that are in place. That’s anecdotally what I’m hearing. Obviously there is no question at the end of this review, I will give a clear view on that.”
Ms Jenkins said she wouldn’t “foreshadow” what her review may conclude, but flagged that she would likely support a more independent and “confidential mechanism” to receive complaints.
She broke with the Australian Federal Police’s commissioner Reece Kershaw, over whether reporting of serious offences should be mandatory.
Mr Kershaw wrote to federal MPs last week, urging them to notify police of such incidents, but Ms Jenkins said she did not back a mandatory reporting scheme.
“In terms of victim-centric approaches, it should be the individual’s decision. That has always been the position across the board,” she said.
“In terms of whether [mandatory reporting] is something that should apply across the board, my experience suggests no. That shouldn’t be taken out of the hands of the victim.
“I do think our inquiry will look particularly at that question because I think it is a really wicked problem for those ministers as to what they should do.”
The process to be chaired by Ms Jenkins will invite submissions from current or former political employees.
An email from Senator Birmingham to employees, seen by TND, calls for reports to be made confidentially to the Human Rights Commission’s website.
Ms Jenkins said the review wanted to hear “good, bad or indifferent” experiences with the current framework.
Ms Jenkins said she “absolutely” felt Parliament was at a turning point in how it dealt with such issues, flagging discussions in recent weeks about mounting sexual assault allegations, but also optimism such as around the stirring National Press Club speech by Grace Tame.
“In my time working in this area and particularly looking in workplaces over the 30 years, I’ve never seen any moment like this,” Ms Jenkins said.
“Our review is absolutely quite historic … I think our community is changing, so we’re at a turning point.”