The entire community, and especially Australian women, has been waiting with bated breath for the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission's report from the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, led by Kate Jenkins.
The so-called Jenkins report, handed down yesterday, found more than half the employees in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault.
It also found 63 per cent of female parliamentarians experienced sexual harassment, compared with just 24 per cent of their male peers.
The report recommends better leadership training, a crackdown on alcohol, a better gender balance among parliamentarians, and codes of conduct.
But perhaps the most important reform it recommends is to improve the woefully inadequate laws that are supposed to protect women in our parliamentary workplaces, by making legislative changes to the MOPS Act.
Many of the serious problems now exposed in the working conditions of the staff of MPs, senators and ministers arise from deficiencies in the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, known as the MOPS Act, under which staff are employed. When the act was passed in 1984, it created for the first time special powers for parliamentarians to employ staff outside of the public service, with maximum flexibility and control. Almost 40 years later, it has never been reviewed or updated.
The act simply states that an MP, senator or minister may employ a person on behalf of the Commonwealth, by an agreement in writing. But while staff are employed by the Commonwealth, the only party who can act in the employment relationship is the MP, senator or minister. The Commonwealth bears the liability if employment laws are breached, yet cannot compel parliamentarians to act, even in cases where misconduct has been found. Parliamentarians enjoy wide powers, but no accountability.
The act does not mandate professional employment practices, nor does it include a code of conduct or specific prohibition on sexual harassment and bullying that would bind staff and parliamentarians as employers. Parliament itself has no specific powers in the act, and there are no formal oversight mechanisms. The act creates no role for Parliament in managing and leading the workforce which supports its members. Because of this lack of authority, Parliament cannot provide guidance, set conditions or enact consequences for actions in its own workplace.
Since the revelations of bullying, sexual misconduct and poor working conditions of staff flashed into public consciousness this year, the Parliament has quietly put in place a number of measures to tackle the problems. A Parliamentary Workplace Support Service can now receive complaints and investigate "serious incidents" in the parliamentary workplace, under the authority of the Parliamentary Service Commissioner. If parliamentarians do not co-operate or act on misconduct, they can be referred to the Privileges Committees. However, these committees are almost entirely composed of members of the two major party groupings, and have very few women members. Six of the political parties currently in Parliament are not represented, nor are the independent members. The mechanisms have been put in place to address the problems without fixing the fundamental deficiencies in the MOPS Act itself. Parliament needs to go much further, but is hampered by its limited governing structures.
In other countries, such as the UK, New Zealand and Canada, houses of parliament have governing bodies which establish policies and codes of conduct and provide the authority for complaints mechanisms and disciplinary procedures.
These governing bodies have broad representation of all parties in parliament. In the UK, the House of Commons Commission also has "lay members" (non parliamentarians). It has played a strong role in addressing problems of bullying and sexual harassment in its workplace, driving the establishment of a Behaviour Code, which applies to all parliamentarians and staff who work in parliament. The New Zealand Parliamentary Service Commission has a Culture Subcommittee. A key part of its remit is to improve the culture of parliament.
The Australian Federal Parliament does not have equivalent governing bodies, leaving its Presiding Officers relatively weak. Without this governing architecture, it is difficult for the Parliament to establish policies on conduct or to hold its members accountable for their actions as employers.
Rather than leaving it up to victims to complain, the Federal Parliament should be leading the way by establishing policies to prevent bullying and sexual harassment in its workplaces and embedding them in its culture.
For this to occur, all political parties need to be engaged and involved, possibly through the creation of cross-party culture committees in each house, which would drive a change to the culture of the parliamentary workplace.
The Jenkins review has produced a broad range of important recommendations to improve the safety of the parliamentary workplace. Parliament must engage with these recommendations and commit to act on them. The problems will not be solved until the MOPS Act is reformed, and the culture of Parliament is addressed. Leadership is vital for changing organisational culture. To create a safe workplace and achieve much-needed culture change, we must look to Parliament to show sustained commitment and leadership.
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