22 May 2024

Jail and big fines could be an option for MPs and senior staff who don't report harassment at Parliament House

| Chris Johnson
Start the conversation

Harassment and bullying at Parliament House could result in tough penalties for politicians and office bosses. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

MPs, Senators and senior staff working inside Parliament House could face jail if they don’t report complaints of workplace harassment and bullying, if one suggestion being mooted is adopted and legislated.

The Sydney Morning Herald has reported a leaked staff consultation document in which it is discussed that a yet-to-be-established body, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission (IPSC), would be given extraordinary powers to police workplace behaviour inside parliament.

Legislation is being drafted to set up the IPSC, which is expected to begin operations later this year.

The IPSC is one of the outstanding key recommendations of the Set the Standard report former sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins delivered in the wake of the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins.

The body will formalise and enforce codes of conduct for parliamentarians and staff.

READ ALSO Urgent deportation bill not so urgent after all

The consultation documents, however, reportedly refer to the incoming commission as a ‘disciplinary body’ and say employers must report allegations of assault, bullying, sexual harassment and all forms of discrimination.

It suggests reports must be made even without the complainants’ consent under the Work Health and Safety Act, which requires employers to ensure the workplace is always safe.

Under the legislation, failure to report could potentially land politicians and/or their chiefs of staff in jail for up to 15 years or with fines of up to $3 million.

The new commission would also have the power to suspend politicians who had breached the parliamentary code of conduct.

It is the sanctioning of parliamentarians that will make the IPSC difficult to legislate, and it is set to be controversial despite a bipartisan taskforce working on it.

The Parliamentary Workplace Support Service (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2023 passed both houses of parliament last year and gives effect to recommendations of the Jenkins Review by establishing the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service as an independent statutory agency.

It is to provide “human resources and certain other services” for parliamentarians and persons employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984.

The bill also established the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service Advisory Board and the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service Consultative Committee.

READ ALSO APS gets further independence from ministerial interference

Former prime minister Scott Morrison initiated the Jenkins review in 2021, and a review of “procedures and processes relating to serious incidents in the parliamentary workplace” was conducted by then deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Stephanie Foster.

Reporting first, the Foster review focused on “immediate, practical steps that could be taken to better support those affected by workplace incidents”. It was in direct response to the Higgins allegations and several other reports of mistreatment by MPs and political and parliamentary staff.

“The review found that the current procedures and processes are not designed or able to respond appropriately to serious incidents in the parliamentary workplace, particularly to sexual assault,” Ms Foster noted in her report.

“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 review found two other critical areas requiring immediate action: a trusted, independent complaints mechanism able to deliver proportionate consequences for misconduct, and tailored, face-to-face education and support for parliamentarians and their staff in preventing, identifying and responding to serious incidents in the workplace …

“While the review has, as requested, considered best practice in other sectors, 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.”

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.