PM&C report finds almost 40 complaints against parliamentarians by staffers in past four years

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins' allegation that she had been raped in a ministerial office has been a rallying point for change. Picture: Karleen Minney
Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins' allegation that she had been raped in a ministerial office has been a rallying point for change. Picture: Karleen Minney

More than 70 complaints have been made by political staffers in the past four years, five of which relate to sexual harassment, a review of parliamentary workplaces has found.

Of the 76 complaints, half of them relate to the conduct of a parliamentarian, deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Stephanie Foster has found.

Fifty-seven were dealt with through "informal action", such as advice or support, and 19 went through "formal action", with seven of those being referred to an external investigation.

Commissioned in February after the shocking allegation by former government staffer Brittany Higgins that she was raped by a fellow staffer in the office of then-defence industry minister Linda Reynolds in 2019, the review found current procedures and processes aren't set up to appropriately respond to serious incidents, particularly sexual assault.

"The most significant gap is the absence of readily accessible, timely, independent, trauma-informed services and response mechanisms, now partially remedied with the introduction of a dedicated 24/7 support line, 1800 APH SPT," the report found.

Other critical areas in need of immediate action were a trusted and independent complaints mechanism "able to deliver proportionate consequences for misconduct", and education for parliamentarians and their staff in preventing, identifying and responding to serious incidents.

As well, there needed to be a "clearly articulated leadership commitment and actions in relation to promoting a safe and respectful workplace".

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced last week the government would implement two of the recommendations, including an independent complaints process and face-to-face training for managers and staff on what is acceptable behaviour.

The review also heard a strong case for change, particularly in the culture of what is considered acceptable behaviour and creating a safe environment to report serious incidents.

"It is a watershed moment for the Parliament, and an opportunity to change the way it balances its pressured, complex, inherently insecure and intensely political environment with its legal and ethical obligations to provide a safe and respectful workplace," the report said.

"This is a workplace like no other, with its unique industrial arrangements, its pace, intensity and complexity, and the fundamentally political nature of its business."

The report also said it was clear the processes hadn't kept pace with what is considered best practice in other organisations.

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In her 104-page report, Ms Foster said a consistent theme in her consultations was the importance of independence, from the employer, political parties and the executive government.

"As the fear of being seen as a 'troublemaker' can be a barrier to reporting - particularly in the parliamentary context where employment can be terminated at any time, subject to the Fair Work Act, and media and political cycles are front-of-mind - independence is particularly important."

The report makes a recommendation to deal with the issue of police or security officers who - as in the case of the Higgins matter - are the first to come across a "serious incident" in Parliament House.

"Factors which could suggest a serious incident has occurred include unusual behaviour occurring after-hours, for example where a person appears intoxicated, or distressed, is in a state of undress, or is engaging in sexual or illicit behaviour.

"If a person's behaviour departs from what one would expect at a workplace, the PSS officers should report it as an incident."

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Finance Minister Simon Birmingham thanked Ms Foster for the report and committed to working with her to provide briefings across Parliament on the report.

The main public sector union representing staffers welcomed the report, but said it remained to be seen if the recommendations would be properly implemented as there was no funding attached to the commitments.

"The number of complaints and training figures show that there needs to be ongoing and mandated training for all staff and politicians," Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Melissa Donnelly said.

"It defies logic that the review notes the department is now working on its own standalone sexual harassment policy, when at every turn they have blocked or ignored CPSU members calls for such a policy, including rejecting a drafted stand along policy, with no reason or feedback."

Ms Donnelly said the government should consult with staff, not politicians, on the next stage of implementation.

"If the Morrison government was serious about implementing a sexual harassment and violence policy, they would have negotiated on the enterprise agreement clause employees put forward, rather than dismissing it."

- With AAP

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This story Almost 40 complaints against parliamentarians by staffers in past four years first appeared on The Canberra Times.