In November 2021 the Australian Human Rights Commission released the Set the standard report, a powerful body of work led by the then Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. Based on contributions from 1,700 people, the report condemned the workplace culture here in Parliament House. It found that 51 per cent of all people currently working in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault. It revealed that one in three workers had experienced sexual harassment, with young women and people who identified as LGBTQIA+ the most vulnerable.
It was laid bare for all to see—the nation’s parliament was an unsafe place to work. Kate Jenkins noted that, while men and women spoke of their experiences, the harassment and bullying was disproportionately aimed at female staff and MPs, and it was largely driven by power imbalances, gender inequality and exclusion and a lack of accountability. The contributions from those interviewed in the report are harrowing. One person said: I am now in the privileged position to have a good job, a home and family of my own, but the scars from this period of my life run deep. I left the office after basically having a nervous breakdown. Another said: I will never work in a political office again, it’s not worth it. Another: I did not want to stay in an environment where I was going to be subject to that level of abuse.
From the get-go there’s no incentive to actually report because it’s not going to change it and it’s probably actually going to make it worse. The report recommended, among other things, an expansion of the powers and jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service. This is long overdue. The Parliamentary Workplace Support Service Bill implements recommendation 11 of the Set the standard report, which recommended that the Australian government establish an Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture to provide human resources support to parliamentarians and employees. The objects of this bill are to support safe and respectful workplaces for parliamentarians and staff, support positive cultural change in those workplaces and provide centralised human resources support to parliamentarians and employees.
The proposed new PWSS would continue the support, complaint resolution and review functions of the existing PWSS, but it would be independent of the Department of Finance. The new service would be headed by an independent office holder. The bill makes clear that the CEO cannot be directed by any person in relation to the performance of their functions or exercise of their powers. Importantly, the CEO will be able to obtain expert advice from an advisory board and will also be able to obtain views from parliamentarians and staff whom it services through a consultative committee. The proposed new PWSS will report annually on key indicators of cultural change and progress in preventing misconduct like bullying and sexual harassment. But the new PWSS is just the first step—an important first step, that must unlock much needed further reforms. Once established it would give effect to a further six Set the standard recommendations, including the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission.
The commission is the other main structural reform recommended in the Set the standard report. It would have the power to enforce the code of conduct and to suspend parliamentarians. This is why the PWSS must be up and running as soon as possible: so the rest of the pieces can be put in place. Legislative change is critical, and I commend the government for introducing this bill, the MOPS amendment bill and the consequential amendments and transitional provisions bill. But we also have to change the way we speak about working in this place. In the past, it’s been too easy to say, ‘Parliament is a unique workplace; there’s no other workplace like it.’ This narrative has to stop. By speaking about parliament this way, either intentionally or unintentionally, we excuse antisocial behaviour. Yes, it’s the national parliament; it’s the imposing house on the hill. But the people who work here have every right to feel safe and respected.
The people who work here should have the systems they need to go about their work in a safe and respectful environment—no exceptions. Society has a problem with the way it treats women. Excusing poor behaviour perpetuates myths and misconceptions about sexual assault. The facts are: sexual assault is an underreported and under-prosecuted crime. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that, in 2021, an average of 85 people were sexually assaulted each day in this country. According to experts, 87 per cent of those that experience sexual assault don’t ever report this crime, meaning the true figure is much higher. In recent weeks, we’ve all heard about the prevalence, for example, of sexual assault on university campuses. The 2021 National Student Safety Survey shows the magnitude of the problem. One in 20 students reported being sexually assaulted since starting university. This equates to 14,300 sexual assaults per year, or 275 each week, every week.
The sexism and power imbalance in this parliament is not peculiar to this place; it’s a community-wide problem. To reiterate: this place should be setting the standard and modelling behaviour. Otherwise, if it’s okay here, what do we expect to see elsewhere? Before I conclude, I’d like to thank staff who came forward during this process. It’s not easy to do that. I would specifically like to thank Brittany Higgins. Ms Higgins has left an important legacy. She was the catalyst for the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces led by Kate Jenkins, and she is the reason we are debating this bill today. The reforms that will follow must create a stronger and safer culture in Australia’s parliament. I’ll finish by saying that, while these fine words on paper in this chamber are one thing, actions in this chamber and in this building are entirely another. Self-awareness among those who work here and reflections on their continuing behaviour inside this chamber and outside it must happen to make these reforms meaningful. I endorse the remarks of the member for Newcastle: squibbing it on this is not an option. This bill must pass. The further reforms must happen. This behaviour must change, for all of us.