Time for change: Parliament must lead by example on workplace culture

Governance Institute members will have seen the disturbing media reports in recent months of what allegedly takes place in Commonwealth Parliament. Former female staffers have courageously spoken out about accusations of bullying, harassment and much worse. 

In response, and in a move we welcomed, the Commonwealth Government tasked the Australian Human Rights Commission with undertaking the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, with bipartisan and crossbench support. 

And this moment of reckoning that is currently taking place in Canberra on issues of workplace harassment and sexual assault will echo through all sectors.  

This is an important reform opportunity that demands action from our nation’s leaders. 

It is imperative that sexual harassment in workplaces in all sectors is addressed as a priority – and this includes the corridors of power in Canberra.  

We should rightly expect that those who represent us and who regulate our industries are themselves living up to the highest standards of conduct, promoting healthy workplaces, and protecting their staff. 

Over 345 people, most of them current and former female parliamentary staffers, have already spoken confidentially to the Commission, according to its latest update. We applaud their courage as sunlight is the best disinfectant. Making these issues more visible is a first step as for too long, they have been allowed to fester away from the public eye through a culture of secrecy and minimisation. 

Governance Institute has made a submission to the review, drawing heavily on the experience of our Public Sector Governance Committee, which is comprised of members currently and previously employed in the public sector at all levels of government. In the spirit of cross-sector dialogue, we also applied the very latest best practice from the private sector.   

Our submission makes the pivotal point that culture is at the heart of the solution. 

It’s time for ministers and members of parliament to ‘walk the talk’ by living their values and visibly demonstrating leadership on cultural change. 

Frameworks, oversight mechanisms and dashboard reporting of cultural metrics play a part, and we make those points in our submission, but tone is ultimately set at the top. 

Staffers’ calls for reform have already yielded results, with the Government accepting all recommendations of the Foster Report and putting forward a Bill to Parliament that will, if enacted, remove all doubt that parliamentarians and their staff are not exempt from the obligations and protections of the Sex Discrimination Act.  

Governance Institute’s submission supports the Foster Report and we have made a joint submission with the Australian Institute of Company Directors strongly supporting the Bill before Parliament. 

But more work needs to be done to achieve lasting reform. 

We call on the political parties themselves to accept responsibility for improving parliamentary workplace culture, as we know they have a heavy influence over what conduct is deemed acceptable among ministerial advisers. 

No party is immune from these issues. The parties must acknowledge their roles, responsibilities and duties of care for the politicians and staffers they promote and endorse into public life. 

We make the case once more for the creation of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, to ensure there is a level of oversight and accountability over our elected politicians. 

We also recommend a root-and-branch review of the Act under which ministerial staffers are employed. At a practical level, we also recommend that the workload, stress and irregular employment conditions of ministerial staffers be alleviated, including perhaps by seconding more public servants to ministerial offices. 

Read our full submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission here. 

We will update members when the Commission reports its findings and recommendations in November. 

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