11 August 2023

Legislation takes step closer to setting the standard at Parliament House

| Chris Johnson
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Parliament House

Parliament House workplace culture has been described as toxic. Photo: Region.

Legislation to establish the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service (PWSS) as an independent statutory agency is being described as a big step towards improving workplace safety and behaviour at Parliament House.

It will result in the creation of a human resources agency with specialist responsibility to deal with complaints of sexual harassment, bullying and other workplace misconduct in the Federal Parliament.

The cross-party measure comes in response to the Set the Standard report, from the 2021 Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces.

It is being hailed as a significant milestone as the first major legislation to deal with recommendations from former sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ report. But it has taken two years since Set the Standard was delivered to reach this point.

Minister for Finance, Women, and the Public Service, Katy Gallagher, said the government was committed to implementing all 28 recommendations of the Set the Standard report, which called for drastic changes to Parliament House’s workplace culture.

“Every single person who comes to work at Parliament House deserves to feel safe, and this hasn’t always been the case,” Senator Gallagher said.

“Significant work has been done during this parliament and the previous one to implement change through the Parliamentary Leadership Taskforce – which includes Labor, Liberal, Nationals, Greens and independent parliamentarians.

“Once this bill is passed, we’ll have an independent human resources entity for staff and parliamentarians enshrined in legislation.”

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The PWSS will deliver professional development and training for staff; support and resources to professionalise management practices in offices; access to coaching and early intervention supports including policy, process, and guidance to manage suspension and termination decisions; and training and guidance for the implementation of the code of conduct and behavioural standards.

“This enhanced service has been informed by consultation with staff, parliamentarians and departments and I would like to thank those who have contributed their views and experiences,” the minister said.

“Progress is being made, but we have a lot more to do, including working across the parliament to establish the Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission that will enforce codes of conduct for parliamentarians and staff.”

Special Minister of State Don Farrell said the government was also moving to simplify legislation covering the employment of staff of members of parliament.

“Over the last two years, there has been a great deal of focus on our workplaces,” Senator Farrell said.

“It’s time for us to make well overdue changes to ensure our workplaces recognise the needs of staff and provide appropriate and accessible support structures.

“Our staff deserve a safe and respectful workplace.”

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The legislative amendments seek to implement Ms Jenkins’ recommendations of the Review of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (MOP(S) Act).

“The legislation has been in operation for almost 40 years and the Australian employment law landscape has changed in this time,” Senator Farrell said.

“Our amendments will modernise the act, improve transparency and support cultural change in our parliamentary workplaces.”

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) welcomed the move, saying it was a significant step in implementing the Set the Standard recommendations.

National secretary Melissa Donnelly said CPSU members had made numerous contributions in shaping both the PWSS and MoPS Act amendments bills.

“The CPSU calls on the parliament to throw their full support behind these bills so that the PWSS can be up and running as soon as possible and work can begin on addressing the rest of the Set the Standard recommendations, including the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission,” Ms Donnelly said.

“Meaningful staff engagement and consultation must continue in the service design and set-up of the PWSS. And once the PWSS is established they can get to work on supporting staff, conducting a review of workloads and staffing resources, the setting and standardisation of policies and training across workplaces, and the continued work of professionalisation and cultural change.”

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked Ms Jenkins to investigate what has been described as the toxic culture of Parliament House as a workplace.

The inquiry was instigated following former Liberal Party ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins alleging she was raped by colleague Bruce Lehrmann.

Mr Lehrmann strenuously maintains his innocence. His trial was abandoned with no findings against him.

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