Sweeping changes to better protect employees of the Coalition and Labor parties are on the way, but staff have demanded more urgent reforms to address the “toxic culture” they say pervades Parliament House, in the wake of multiple shocking scandals.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he hates talking about “the Canberra bubble”. But his government’s stumbling responses to continual revelations of scandalous cultural failings have shone light on how staff are treated in Parliament, and why so many say they feel uncomfortable, uneasy or even unsafe when attending a workplace which many politicians say should have the highest standards in the country.
Mr Morrison pledged to update standards in his party, promising new workplace safety training programs, support mechanisms and complaint procedures. Labor’s new National Code of Conduct, after a recent review of its systems from women’s caucus chair Sharon Claydon, will soon be implemented.
But hundreds of staff in Parliament House want more. The Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Community and Public Sector Union – representing workers from political staffers to parliamentary clerks to cleaners – issued a list of five demands to update workplace standards after meeting with members this week.
Parliamentary staffers are currently negotiating their enterprise bargaining agreement with the Department of Finance, with a meeting next week to see the union proposals inserted into demands.
“The work our members do is incredibly important for our democracy, but their workplaces have significant power imbalances, which can allow bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault to fester and go unpunished,” said CPSU national secretary, Melissa Donnelly.
“Respect and safety at work are non-negotiable. Our members across all departments that work in parliament have had enough.”
The demands include new independent and confidential complaints processes, which many staffers claim are sorely lacking and much-needed in Parliament, plus new rules against sexual harassment specifically listed in workplace contracts. They also want mandatory workplace safety training for politicians and staff, better data reporting, new specialised support services, and the “immediate implementation of the 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report.”
This is the report, compiled by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, which has been sitting on the attorney-general’s desk for over a year. The same report which, as revealed in Senate Estimates, Attorney-General Christian Porter never met with his department to discuss.
Workers in Parliament House have a right to be safe at work. @cpsu have raised sexual harassment at every Health and Safety committee meeting for the last 2 years. Immediate action needed for an independent confidential complaints process @DonnellyMel pic.twitter.com/fjVYrQATC0
— Michele O'Neil (@MicheleONeilAU) March 24, 2021
Mr Morrison defended his response to the report on Thursday, telling ABC radio the government had already adopted nine recommendations, and others required action across multiple levels of government – not just federal.
“I am personally taking this on … we will be giving a complete response before the Budget,” Mr Morrison said.
Earlier in the week, he told an extraordinary meeting of Coalition staffers of plans for new training and employee support networks. Mr Morrison promised “a lot more to say about this in the next month”.
The response was mixed among Coalition staffers spoken to by The New Daily. Some are optimistic about the changes, and confident the PM is hearing their concerns. Others said the mood inside Coalition staffer ranks – especially among junior workers – is downbeat and sombre, and they are concerned Mr Morrison still doesn’t fully appreciate the issues raised by staff.
He came under fire on Tuesday for souring an apology for his actions in recent weeks, by angrily airing incorrect claims about harassment inside News Corp.
In Labor, staffers have told TND of their concerns and confusion about reporting internal complaints. Anonymous allegations of serious criminal behaviour against senior Labor men were also aired in a private Facebook group recently.
Ms Claydon has undertaken a review of Labor’s standards, producing a new code of conduct with strengthened policies on sexual harassment and bullying.
“There is a very significant commitment from the Australian Labor Party around education and training and the implementation of those now much upgraded and improved policies,” she told TND on Thursday.
Ms Claydon called it “absurd” mandatory safety training wasn’t already a fixture in Parliament House.
“I commend the Liberal Party for stepping up and getting some training in place,” she said.
“Every single person in this building deserves safety.”
She called for Mr Morrison to “lead the way” and ensure ongoing training, “not a one-off process”.
“He should not be waiting for Kate Jenkins to bring down a report in November in order to act,” she said.
It came after women’s safety network Our Watch addressed politicians and staff inside Parliament this week. The cross-party group Parliamentarians for Action to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children held a workshop on Wednesday, featuring academics and violence prevention experts speaking on the root causes of such behaviour, and calling for change from childhood.
Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly said families and workplace leaders needed to participate.
“A young person needs to see gender equality in their home, they need to go to kinder and not be told to play with pink or blue, they need to go to school and have equal and respectful relationships,” she said.
“They need to see people representing us, whether that’s as CEOs or our politicians or any other leadership role.”
Much has been made of the fast-paced, hard-drinking culture which can pervade parts of Parliament. The Our Watch event detailed how causes of gendered violence can include men controlling decision-making and limiting the power of women, gender stereotypes, and aggressive male friendships.
Dr Phil Lambert, Our Watch deputy co-chair, suggested overhauling education curricula to include more resources on respectful relationships – which he said was currently “quite thin”.
“School is a real safety net. It’s the one place we can gather every Australian,” Dr Lambert told the group.
“Behaviours and attitudes won’t change unless there’s this whole wrap-around approach.”