One in four staff at the Department of House of Representatives said bullying and harassment was the number one issue for their department, with one staff member saying leadership was "underequipped" to deal with bullying by members of parliament towards staff.
The Department of the House of Representatives supports the work of the lower chamber of Parliament, including through committee work and providing services and facilities to MPs. In a survey of staff undertaken in May and June last year, and seen by The Canberra Times, staff continually point to internal bullying between staff, lack of consequences for perpetrators and a sense that the issue is being "swept under the rug".
The independent inquiry into parliamentary workplaces being conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins is also likely to hear from departmental staff, as well political staff, about the behaviour of MPs.
"The department's leadership seems very underequipped to deal with issues caused by Members, including but by no means limited to the bullying of departmental staff," one respondent said.
"While the conduct of members is theoretically a matter for the House, on a practical level the only option available for staff is to 'suck it up'."
Another respondent said "apart from meetings involving members, the workplace is a safe environment".
Almost 12 per cent of staff members who took the survey said they had been subject to bullying and harassment in the past year, half of which was "physical behaviour" and 70 per cent of which was verbal abuse.
Of those who reported bullying, the majority didn't raise it officially.
"I did not report it because I have seen the way people who do report are treated in this department and it would only make it worse," one respondent said.
Responding to a question asking what the most important issue to be addressed by the department was, bullying was the overwhelming answer.
"Bullying is everywhere and very poorly managed," one respondent said.
"In fact it is not actually managed, but ignored and the perpetrators get away with everything and are still in the department affecting people's lives and mental health everyday."
Another said "overall, I do not believe that bullying and harassment is widespread in the Department, but it is the number one issue that needs to be addressed".
The Department of the House of Representatives is led by Clerk of the House Claressa Surtees, who told The Canberra Times in a statement the department values its employees and considers bullying and harassment as unacceptable forms of behaviour.
"The department is committed to providing a safe, harmonious and productive workplace free from bullying and harassment," she said.
"Any complaint of bullying or harassment is treated seriously and investigated promptly, confidentially and impartially."
Ms Surtees said the department had a clearly defined policy and process for investigating and handling bullying and harassment complaints, which was reviewed last year in consultation with staff and the public sector union. Training on preventing bullying and harassment was compulsory for all employees, she said.
"As a response to the results of the staff survey in 2020, the Clerk of the House sent an email to all departmental staff indicating that bullying and harassment is not tolerated in the department. All staff were urged to report any incidents of bullying or harassment that they were subject to or witnessed," the statement said.
"In addition, a department wide forum was held on the topic, a staff driven discussion group was established (and is still running) and a program of specific training was commenced and is being rolled out to all supervisors. The results of the survey were made available to all staff so that concerns about bullying and harassment could be fully discussed in an inclusive manner."
Ms Surtees also said the department had a clear reporting process for departmental staff who feel they have been bullied or harassed by Members of Parliament.
While Ms Surtees is responsible for the staff of the department, Speaker of the House Tony Smith is responsible for enforcing appropriate behaviour among MPs - but only inside the chamber.
A spokeswoman for Mr Smith said he had not been made aware of any unsafe behaviours from MPs towards staff in the department.
"The Clerk communicates with members and their staff through a newsletter in which the departmental policy about bullying and harassment prevention, including a link to the policy, has been promoted, the spokeswoman said.
"As Speaker, my authorities and responsibilities relate directly to that which occurs in the Chamber. In relation to staff of the Department of the House of Representatives, if a complaint is made a senior member of the Department would address the concerns, depending on the circumstances, through various avenues. This could include through the Whips or directly with the Member concerned."
Dr Maria Maley, an expert in Australian Government and Politics at the Australian National University, specialises in studying the role of political staffers in Australia, and has in recent months been inundated with stories from staffers who say they have been bullied and harassed by MPs, with little consequences.
She says the experiences of political staffers and public servant in the Department of the House of Representatives are linked.
"It's about MPs and senators and ministers feeling they can behave in ways that wouldn't be acceptable in other workplaces, and not being called out on it, or held to account because of the deference that surrounds them and their sense of entitlement, which is certainly what came out in interviews with people who worked in MP's offices."
Even if bad behaviour was reported within the department, and made its way to an MP, history shows even party leaders have no enforcement powers with members of their parties. It has been reported Prime Minister Scott Morrison requested former Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly sack his advisor Frank Zumbo multiple times, as allegations against Mr Zumbo continued. Mr Zumbo remains employed in Mr Kelly's office, and Mr Kelly has left the Liberal party for the crossbench following a separate controversy on his outspoken views on unproven treatments for coronavirus.
"There isn't any any structure to which they're accountable. The only authority is the political authority, the leader of Labor or the Liberals who could say 'pull your head in', but they may not have that power, depending on the factional make up of that power," Dr Maley said.
"That's the nature of political authority, a Prime Minister doesn't necessarily have a lot of authority over every member," she said, pointing to situations where governments have held slim majorities, or when Prime Ministers have been fighting to hold onto every vote for their own leadership within the party room.
Acknowledging there is a role for the party whips to play, she said issues around behaviour of MPs needed to be addressed with cultural change from leaders, and internal party processes, linking appropriate behaviour to future preselections, could play a role.
National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Melissa Donnelly, said staff in the Department of House of Representatives, the Department of Parliamentary Services, and in ministerial and parliamentary offices, all face barriers to reporting harassment and work health and safety issues.
"There is a power imbalance in all parliamentary workplaces which can foster problematic behaviour," she said
"It is essential that workplace policies across all APH workplaces improve reporting structures, definition of workplace harassment and bullying and mandatory training for senior staff and parliamentarians. CPSU members will continue to advocate for these long-needed changes through the Jenkins Review."
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