Parliament House staff and the nation deserve a safe and secure workplace

Ian Bushnell 22 February 2021 28
Parliament House

Something is rotten in Parliament House and it needs to be cleaned up. Photo: File.

The Canberra bubble proved itself to be an opaque and murky edifice as it settled over Parliament House last week.

It seems that while the rest of the nation’s idea of doing business has moved on from boozy long lunches or late night binges and adheres to occupational health and safety regimes that aim to prevent the kind of episodes that Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins endured, Parliament House is a law unto itself.

It seems the place where laws are made can be quite lawless.

A further two allegations of sexual assault involving Ms Higgins’ alleged assailant only adds to the urgency of the situation.

While the politics of this has a long way to play out, with increasing pressure on the Prime Minister about when he actually knew what, Ms Higgins’ coming out has also outed a dangerous work culture, and an inadequate policing and complaints procedure at Parliament House, as well as, unsurprisingly, a flurry of inquiries.

A senior bureaucrat from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet will investigate whether there is sufficient support for people who work in the Federal Parliament, while a bi-partisan, independent committee will also investigate the workplace culture and support available to staff.

Liberal backbencher Celia Hammond, a former university vice-chancellor, will also investigate the workplace culture within the Liberal Party.

And now it has become a police matter, as it should have been in the first place.


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It is easy to see how a traumatised Ms Higgins would have been discouraged – the looming 2019 election, fears for her job, and the political implications of such an incident taking place in the office of a Minister of the Crown.

The Parliament House environment can be an intoxicating mix of power and privilege, with its important goings-on magnified out of all proportion, a world of its own detached from the reality of the rest of Canberra, no matter the country.

It can be a place of high emotion, intense relationships and excess when the pressure needs to be relieved, encouraging aberrant behaviour, especially for those playing away from home.

And infused with the heady whiff of politics, and a perspective seen through that particular prism.

That only makes it even more important that there be firm standards and oversight.

Staffers such as Ms Higgins are employed by the Department of Finance, a large and distant overseer that probably doesn’t understand those employees or their needs.

The first thing to do would be to bring Parliament House employees directly under an entity that would be close to its workforce, approachable and capable of applying and policing at least the current APS OH&S standards, including policies for bullying and harassment, as well as imposing any specific rules that may be deemed necessary for that workplace.

This incident has not come out of the blue. The consensual Barnaby Joyce affair that prompted the famous ‘bonking ban’ from Malcolm Turnbull was a glaring sign that something was amiss on the Hill.

Another obvious reason for a shake-up of culture is the security risk that it poses. Mr Joyce was the Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Higgins’ boss Senator Linda Reynolds was Minister for Defence Industry at the time and the incident occurred in her office.

Alcohol-affected staffers and God knows who else running around ministers’ offices late at night, in a city filled with spies, with cyber and trade wars being waged, should be the intelligence agencies’ worst nightmare.

Let the police investigation proceed to its conclusion, the politics play out and the reviews announced bring about change that makes Parliament House safe for its employees and secure for the country it serves.


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28 Responses to Parliament House staff and the nation deserve a safe and secure workplace
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rogerson rogerson 12:43 pm 01 Mar 21

What is a workplace? I am not sure that a party where people drink too much alcohol should be included. If adults put their health at risk, that is their choice.
Imagine a driver doing 150kph then suing his employer for not making his workplace safe.

CraigFromCurtin CraigFromCurtin 4:55 pm 25 Feb 21

Look, the actions of one person do not constitute a “toxic environment” that envelops the whole of Parliament. If the offence is proved then what this one man did is abhorrent. No-one else committed the crime. I think people should stop blaming the entire workforce of Parliament for what an individual does.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:40 am 23 Feb 21
JC JC 10:19 pm 22 Feb 21

Just to be clear these are not Parliament House workers these are from what it seems employees of the minister. Why I make this differentiation is it is the culture of that ministers officer which also leads to the political party that is at issue not the culture of the Canberra bubble or Parliament House in general.

And that culture goes beyond sexual misconduct but bullying and the like. To be clear this is not unique to any party either there are elements in all parties.

I’ve worked at Parliament House (joint house department) and seen first hand the shenanigans and behaviour that goes on in the quest for political power. It makes you wonder and btw is one of the main drivers for the strong political views that I now have.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:40 pm 22 Feb 21

“The first thing to do would be to bring Parliament House employees directly under an entity that would be close to its workforce….”

Proximity and specialist workplace knowledge might have some advantages, but such an entity would also be very small in the bureaucratic scheme of things, and thus that much more susceptible to being monstered (or suspected of that) by powerful politicians – which would not engender confidence. A better option might be to enhance the role and resources of the Merit Protection Commissioner in dealing with such matters.

The broader problem is clearly about workplace culture, and if the inveterately puerile tone of Question Time (particularly in the Reps) is anything to go by – in spite of many promises by many governments over many years to do better – that is going to be a very difficult issue to deal with.

keek keek 10:27 am 22 Feb 21

So, yet again, what we have here is the media deciding the guilt of the accused without trial. Shameful. Nobody has even made a formal complaint to the police as yet.

    astro2 astro2 5:45 pm 22 Feb 21

    Hi Keek, you may not have kept up with the most recent news but there are now four people who have made reports to the police.

    chewy14 chewy14 10:54 pm 22 Feb 21

    Astro,
    Got any links for that?

    As far as the news I’ve read, only one complaint to police has been formally made with another expected (from media reports) on Wednesday.

    chewy14 chewy14 12:22 pm 23 Feb 21

    Astro,
    Sorry but you’re actually linking to some of the material i’m also referencing and have read.

    You’ll note those articles state that 4 woman have now made complaints but they do not state that those complaints have been formal complaints to the police. You are misreading them.

    The reports only state that one woman has made a formal complaint to police about innapropriate behaviour.

    And that another formal complaint will apparently be made to police on Wednesday.

    The details of the other two are not listed in your links and there have been no reports that the complaints were actually given to the police as opposed to the media.

    astro2 astro2 1:34 pm 23 Feb 21

    Thanks for apologising. See my post below with a link to the Ch 7 news report titled: “Parliament House rape allegations – 4th woman makes complaint to police.”

    chewy14 chewy14 4:41 pm 23 Feb 21

    Astro,
    yes I am sorry that you are misreading the reports.

    Nowhere in the article does it say the all complaints have been formally made to police, although I can understand your confusion.

    The headline is in relation to the fourth woman making a formal complaint to police about inappropriate behaviour, not her being the fourth woman to complain to police.

    They headline is missing a comma.

    astro2 astro2 6:54 pm 23 Feb 21

    Yeah-nah, think we can take that as read. 4th woman makes complaint to police probably means a 4th woman has made a complaint to police. About the only person who is really confused about the whole story is Sergeant ‘Scomo’ Schultz – “I know nothink! Nothink!

    chewy14 chewy14 9:03 pm 23 Feb 21

    Astro,
    Yeah nah, if you were correct then you’d be able to point to the specific parts of the articles that talk about the approaches to police. If you think you’re correct, you can surely quote the sections of the articles that discuss it right?

    Indeed, don’t you find it strange that the articles specifically talk about Ms Higgins (the first woman) preparing to make her formal complaint to police on Wednesday, when according to you she has already done so.

    Or is she now the fifth woman according to your misreading?

    Along with the description of the second woman providing The Australian with a statutory declaration of her complaint. What for if she has already complained to police?

    Facts do matter Astro.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-21/brittany-higgins-police-on-wednesday-over-alleged-rape/13176636

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:35 am 24 Feb 21

    Thanks for confirming that this is just another attempt by the media to smear our PM.

    Nothing to do with how many women are making complaints.

    keek keek 8:44 am 23 Feb 21

    Yes astro, I have seen that the bandwagon is now well and truly rolling. As of yesterday morning, these allegations had only been reported to the media, and not the police.

    astro2 astro2 11:18 am 23 Feb 21

    No actually, as of this morning four reports to the police:
    https://7news.com.au/politics/parliament-house-rape-allegations-fourth-woman-makes-complaint-to-police-in-wake-of-brittany-higgins-scandal-c-2215217
    And you appear to be confused about the meaning of the word “bandwagon”. Reports to police of crimes are not “bandwagons”. Suggest you update your reference material.

    keek keek 1:37 pm 23 Feb 21

    Oh, it’s a bandwagon. These would have been reported to the police at the time of the alleged incidents otherwise.

    jwinston jwinston 2:56 pm 23 Feb 21

    Wow. Just wow…

    Rohan Anderson Rohan Anderson 4:09 pm 23 Feb 21

    Keek, you seem to be conflating and confusing the reporting of allegations of criminal behaviour with a formal trial and findings of guilt. This is clearly a false equivalence and imho, little more than a futile attempt at avoiding the legal and ethical implications of what appears to be a clear pattern of predatory behaviour.

    JS9 JS9 8:33 am 23 Feb 21

    Whether the accused is guilty or not, surely its patently obvious there is a massive workplace culture issue at Parliament House that needs to be addressed in some manner or other.

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