Current and former political staffers have welcomed the sweeping recommendations of a damning report into sexual harassment in parliament, but say more action is needed to prevent assault and sexism in Canberra.
Women who gave evidence to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ landmark review told The New Daily they supported her calls for mandatory training for politicians and staff on appropriate workplace behaviour. Former Liberal staffer and sexual assault advocate Brittany Higgins called for immediate action on the report’s recommendations.
However, another former Liberal staffer, Chelsey Potter, said political parties should also be required to provide mandatory training for new members outside the parliament sphere, to prevent a culture of “violent misogyny”.
“It [the review] was overwhelming in terms of the accuracy of the culture that is reflected in terms of my own experience,” Ms Potter said.
“To see it laid bare in the Jenkins’ review was quite something.”
Ms Potter was interviewed by Ms Jenkins after she went public in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2019 with an allegation she was sexually assaulted by a colleague. She claimed she was restrained and had her underwear removed during a sitting week in Canberra – an allegation her colleague reportedly denied.
Ms Jenkins’ Set the Standard report, released on Tuesday, set out 28 recommendations, including overhauling procedures in parliamentary chambers to eliminate sexist language and behaviour among politicians, and developing strict codes of conduct for MPs.
The report also recommended a new ‘Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture’ deliver mandatory training and induction courses on appropriate workplace behaviour.
Ms Potter, who joined the Liberal Party at age 16 and previously worked for Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, said the report’s recommendations would prevent young women from experiencing the alleged behaviour she encountered.
She said while she was in Canberra, she experienced the “most violent expression of misogyny”, but was never told where she could raise complaints.
“From the age of about 16, I did encounter unwelcome comments [and] inappropriate comments and didn’t have any form of protection,” she said.
“I think political parties have to reflect, if you’re willing to take the money of a 16-year-old young woman, you have to offer some level of protection because that culture does seep in to the professional staffing networks as well.
“There need to be … clear processes and standards and mandatory induction training.”
Labor staffer Georgia Tree, who works for Western Australian MP Madeleine King, gave a written submission to the inquiry.
She said training was an important preventative measure to ensure staffers and employers “know what their rights and responsibilities are from the get-go”.
She also welcomed recommended changes to the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act (MOPS) that would strengthen complaints reporting systems.
“There’s these structural barriers that make it difficult to report, for yourself and for others,” Ms Tree told The New Daily.
“Addressing that in the MOPS act and having that clarity will go a long way.
“A lot of it is cultural – this won’t be a be-all and end-all – as there are plenty of reasons people don’t report.
“I think having that comfort, knowing and having it clearly stated that workers can apply to the Fair Work Commission if they feel they’ve been done over, that’s really important.”
Ms Higgins called for immediate action on the report’s recommendations.
She said she raised some of the report’s recommendations with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in April and argued they would bring Parliament House “in-line with every other workplace in the country”.
“They aren’t radical recommendations,” Ms Higgins tweeted on Wednesday.
“We should expect more of our leaders. It’s time they step up.”
Parties to consult before accepting recommendations
Ms Jenkins noted that her recommendations should “not be cherry-picked for implementation” and urged the government and political parties to support them in full.
She told Sky News on Wednesday that her report outlined a two-year implementation plan with “urgent things to put in place before the next election”.
But the Coalition government and Labor Opposition both stopped short of immediately agreeing to all recommendations, with MPs saying their parties would take time to consider a response.
Labor’s shadow minister for women Tanya Plibersek said senior MPs needed to listen to young staff members when deciding how to implement the recommendations.
“The experiences of people like me who’ve been around for a while, who are relatively senior, are not the same as the experience of the young staffers, and we need to be listening to them,” she told the ABC on Wednesday.
Liberal senator Jane Hume said the Coalition would also consult staff.
“We want to make sure that everybody has buy-in to those recommendations so we can make significant and fundamental and systemic change within Parliament House,” she told the ABC.
Ms Potter said she wasn’t “heartened” by the responses. She argued it was up to the government to take leadership on implementing the report’s recommendations.
She said she would write to all federal politicians this week urging them to implement Jenkins’ recommendations in full.
“I’ll certainly be putting pen to paper for Simon Birmingham,” she said.
“I’ll be expressing my hope that he’ll be working with the crossbench and with Labor to implement them in full and that I would, on a personal note, appreciate that being the case.
“I think any reticence to acknowledge that or to cherry-pick or to dance around this issue, I think women are pretty sick of it and I think it will be reflected at the ballot box.”
Australian of the Year Grace Tame, an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, said unless the government implemented all the recommendations, Jenkins’ review would signify a “theatrical announcement”.
“I’m loath to have to criticise once again, but this is the reality,” she tweeted.
But Ms Tree said it was a “positive” move that Labor had promised to consult with staff before making a decision on which recommendations it would support implementing.
The Jenkins report found of the 1700 people working across Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces who responded to the investigation, 51 per cent said they had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault.
Nearly two-thirds of female politicians reported being sexually harassed, while 26 per cent of staff who’d been harassed claimed that harassment came at the hands of an MP.