22 February 2021

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

| Ian Bushnell
Join the conversation
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.

READ ALSO Planning debates need to move beyond David and Goliath shouting matches

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.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

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.

CraigFromCurtin4:55 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.

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.

HiddenDragon8:40 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.

Perhaps you should ask yourself why reporting a criminal act should damage or destroy a person’s career? What would you think if you did the right thing and reported a criminal act to the police, only to find out later that doing the right thing marked the end of your career. Do you think that is justice?

Piffle. The women (and men) who make it into positions within PH are strong, independent, empowered, intelligent, street-smart, ambitious and power hungry. They are not swooning, closeted, naive, helpless and dumb with the sensitivities and frailties of a trembling, heart fluttering, bosom heaving Jane Austen character. Believe it or not some/some will even, shock/horror, use all their attributes for advancement. We must deal with realities, not outdated M&B romanticism. Women (and men) must be encouraged, if not compelled to report all assaults for their own sake and for the safety of others. The police are skilled and trained to sensitively and competently investigate these allegations. When there is a true culture of intolerance for sexual assault with prompt reporting, the workplace will be made safe/r. When there is a culture of regarding women as childlike, helpless victims, unable to report crimes and excuses are made for their silence, the workplace will remain ‘problematic’.

It astounds me that such dinosaur, victim blaming views still exist in the world Annie. But then it doesn’t entirely surprise me either – sadly that view still pervades through a sector of the community it seems.

Yes, the view of “Innocent until proven guilty” is such a horrible one to hold onto. We should just go back to lynch mobs and accusing our neighbours of witchcraft for owning a cat.

Oh please. Who exactly is suggesting that keek? Noone.

But this idea somehow that she ‘condoned’ the felony, as suggested in the original comment is pathetic, 19th century view of what is a very complex issue – indeed much of the stigma that is created around this, and a key reason why many may choose not to report it, is because of ridiculous views held by a minority such as this.

thanks for that hot take genius. Spoken like someone who has never experienced the trauma and shame of sexual assault. Sit down. What an execrable human being you are to blame the victim instead of the society that shames them into silence.

You can’t be serious? Shames them into silence? What absolute nonsense. Victims of sexual assault have been encouraged to come forward and protected for a LONG time now.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

No actually, as of this morning four reports to the police:
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.

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.

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.”

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

Wow. Just wow…

Rohan Anderson4:09 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.

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.

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!

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.


Capital Retro9:35 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.

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.