Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins has serious reservations about the independence of the newly established complaints mechanism for serious incidents in Parliament House - one of her key requests as she has sought to help make the people's house a safer place.
A complaints mechanism - a central recommendation of the Foster review of the parliamentary workplace set up in the wake of Ms Higgins' alleged sexual assault - has begun alongside a dedicated new 24-hour, seven-day phone, email and text support service to deal with cases of alleged sexual assault, harassment and bullying.
Ms Higgins has welcomed new support for staff, but is underwhelmed and has serious reservations that bad behaviour will be dealt with.
"The establishment of the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service is an acknowledgment by the government that the existing reporting framework has not been fit for purpose," she told The Canberra Times.
"Given the lack of existing protections for those employed under the MoP(S) Act and the stark power imbalance between employers and employees, it is essential for there to be a truly independent parliamentary reporting authority."
An independent complaints mechanism for parliamentary staff was one of the major safety reforms Ms Higgins took to the meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in April, several months after the story of her alleged sexual assault in Parliament House first became public. The Foster review, led by PM&C deputy secretary Stephanie Foster, also found a so-called serious incident team should be developed to deal with sexual assault.
The new support service will review serious complaints alleged to have occurred since the start of this parliamentary term, and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has promised independence and confidentiality, with Parliamentary Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott in charge of any review.
"While well-intentioned, the 'serious incidents team' proposed under the new Parliamentary Workplace Support Service will have a severely limited ability to compel or sanction parliamentarians for failure to comply with findings made in relation to serious workplace [incidents]," Ms Higgins said.
She hopes the yet-to-be-completed Jenkins review of parliamentary culture will deliver reforms she is after. Submissions to review by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins have urged sanctions for MPs who commit bad behaviour in their parliamentary workplace.
There are three options on the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service website for people seeking support and advice, addressing both alleged victims and perpetrators: "Something happened to me", "Someone has accused me" and "Supporting someone I know".
Trained counsellors and case co-ordinators will staff the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week service for all parliamentary staff and parliamentarians. Immediate advice and ongoing trauma-informed support will be offered, while experts will be appointed to conduct workplace reviews and cases may be referred to the police or other specialised support services.
The Finance Minister says there is bipartisan support for the new service, and he says previously announced workplace safety and respect training is also now being rolled out in Parliament.
"Every single Australian has a right to feel and to be safe in their workplace, and our national Parliament should set an example and reflect best practice in the prevention and handling of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault," Senator Birmingham said.
MPs and senior staff will be offered a voluntary one-hour training session in respectful workplace behaviour, and junior staff will be offered a voluntary two-hour session, which may later be made mandatory.
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