Whenever Scott Morrison claims we are at the front of the queue, that we have gold standards, that it is "not a race" but a chase for gold medals, I start to panic. Not once has any claim like this been true. Not once.
And so it will be, I fear, with the government's response to the recommendations of the final report by Stephanie Foster, after the public servant's inquiry into the processes and procedures relating to serious incidents in the parliamentary workplace.
You will recall this inquiry, one of a handful, began after allegations by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins that she was sexually assaulted at Parliament House by a colleague. Higgins felt she was forced to choose between justice or a career in politics and the response to her alleged assault, by the then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds, was uniformly dreadful. Higgins was interviewed about her experience in the very room in which the assault allegedly took place.
The government says it has adopted the recommendations from the report and has also announced that, in tandem with these recommendations, a face-to-face training program for parliamentarians and their staff will be rolled out widely from September. It will be mandatory for all Coalition ministers and staff, and it is expected that all other parliamentarians and their staff will undertake this training when it is available to them. Those who don't complete the module will go on a shame list.
This is the funniest thing I have ever read. Already, the process is being undermined by Queensland LNP senator Gerard Rennick, who said on Wednesday that he would take part in no such thing.
He said: "The threat of being named and shamed is harassment in itself. I won't be taking advice from anyone who thinks that the best way to get someone to do something is by shaming them."
I'm not sure I agree with Rennick. Shaming the shameful is fine. But I have reservations about training programs for Coalition ministers actually working.
Usually these are gormless online modules, which have no key performance indicators attached and which never work. I once had a boss who would constantly berate staff for not being up-to-date with modules, yet ended up costing our organisation a lot of money for bullying a colleague. Policies and processes to stop this kind of behaviour are mostly useless - and the Foster report is being used by the government to fend off whatever it is that Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins will recommend in her report at year's end, which will definitely have more teeth than anything in the Foster report. The government doesn't like teeth, as was evidenced by its gutless response to Jenkins's Respect@Work report.
As ANU political science professor emerita Marian Sawer says, the Foster report leaves too much unclear - and Foster herself was restricted by her terms of reference. In a submission to the Jenkins inquiry, Sawer and colleagues say there is a clear need for much more than a legislated code of conduct.
"There must be an independent authority such as a parliamentary standards commissioner to oversee the code of conduct and support harassment prevention, proper management of complaints and consequences for those who do not uphold the code," the submission reads.
Independent. What the report recommends doesn't fit my idea of independent.
There must also be sanctions in place for those who don't meet expectations, such as breaching the code of conduct - excluding them from every perk of office.
Serious concerns also exist regarding the systems to be put in place by the Foster recommendations. The deal, as I understand it, is that if you have a complaint, you will go to a case co-ordinator who might be able to assist the parties to have a "local resolution, for example through a facilitated discussion". What? With the alleged perpetrator? Are you kidding me?
Former Liberal MP Julia Banks, author of Power Play, a book on what the hell really goes on in Federal Parliament, says anyone, or any organisation, with any oversight of parliamentary conduct must be truly independent - which is what Bek Sharkie and Zali Steggal called for early this year, and is not part of the existing mechanisms. Anyone with oversight of parliamentary conduct must also definitely not be reporting to existing hierarchies within the very messy institution already under scrutiny. Banks says the Foster report merely rebadges what is already in place.
"It must be lifted out of Parliament," she says.
"To make it a safe house, they must take this process out of the House."
On page after page of the report, you can see ways in which privacy will be breached, ways in which colleagues will be discouraged from properly reporting terrible behaviour. And you can see how the whole "snitches get stitches" mentality will be reinforced.
There is no mandatory reporting requirement for serious incidents. On the face of it, that looks like a measure that protects victims by allowing them to make their own decisions. On the base of it, it protects perpetrators. Victims can be manipulated into not reporting. That means the processes for justice will be weakened.
The Foster report might be well-meaning, but it embeds much of the poor processes we have seen in the past. Worse, it paints Parliament House as special - a workplace like no other. That implies the same rules shouldn't apply to those who work there as they do to other workplaces. Yes, it's true it is harder to punish parliamentarians and others who are sexual harassers or assaulters - but we need real processes to make it possible. Otherwise, Parliament House will never ever be safe for anyone.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.