Making parliament a safe workplace

Motion 729 – speech

I rise to speak on my motion 729.

As a place of high office, parliaments are expected to be a place of best practice and high standards. Unfortunately, the reality is sometimes quite the opposite, reflected in the poor public perception of politicians.

This extends to a perception, and sometimes the sad reality, of bullying and harassment being prevalent within the parliamentary workplace. By and large, people conduct themselves respectfully, within the context of the robust and diverse exchange of ideas that is our vibrant democracy and that is integral to parliamentary and political process.

We know our positions are a great privilege and honour, and so many people in the parliamentary workplace are heavily invested in serving our communities as part of our role – whatever that is – within this Parliament.

The parliamentary workplace is certainly unique, with a diversity of employment settings including Members, electorate and parliamentary staff, ministerial staff, parliamentary officers, precinct employees and contractors. These roles are covered by multiple working arrangements, enterprise agreements and a complex intersect of roles and power. It’s also a workplace that can include a lot of pressure, long hours, complex issues, interactions and negotiations.

At a very basic level, safe and respectful workplaces help attract and retain the best people, drive performance and manage reputational and legal risk. This is essential to public confidence. At its most serious level, we need to ensure that people within our workplaces are safe and that when that safety is breached, there are appropriate mechanisms for support.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission is an established and funded independent agency that conducts reviews and investigations into a range of settings. VEOHRC could be well-positioned to conduct an independent review of matters relating to bullying and harassment within the parliamentary workplace and recommend improvements.

A review of the parliamentary workplace should be conducted with the bipartisan support of government, opposition and the crossbench, in a spirit that takes the important opportunity to review and improve our workplace, rather than focusing on individual allegations. In making this point, I am not saying that those individual allegations are not important, but there doesn’t seem to be a structure in place for these to be managed.

It is in this spirit of this bipartisan support that this motion directs the presiding officers to jointly write to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner to request that the Commission inquire into and report on the adequacy of existing laws, policies, structures and complaint mechanisms relating to bullying and harassment in the Victorian Parliament.

The Commission would also be asked to report on improvements that may be made, and whether an independent complaints body should be established to provide a mechanism to manage and respond to complaints about bullying and harassment.

A similar review was conducted with respect to the federal parliamentary workplace, led by the Australian Human Rights Commission, and another on the South Australian parliamentary workplace. The South Australian review found the complaint handling procedures in parliamentary workplace was almost non-existent and inconsistent with the modern workplace standards.  We’re probably dreaming to think that our situation is not really dissimilar. The South Australian report noted that political institutions are far from immune from unacceptable and unlawful behaviours but are the places that can and should lead change.

The same was said of the federal review, with the covering page of the Jenkins Report containing a quote from one of the contributors: ‘This is Parliament. It should set the standard for workplace culture, not the floor of what culture should be.’ The federal Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces was initiated in 2021 after very serious public allegations of sexual assault, but also in the context of a broader shift in our community expectations around equality, safety and respect.

Engagement in the federal review was very encouraging and demonstrated that people very clearly wanted to share their views. The Review Survey was responded to by almost a quarter of people working in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces and the final report provided a pathway through a proposed Framework for Action, including 28 recommendations.

When our now Prime Minister spoke on the report in February this year, Anthony Albanese said ‘no-one deserves to feel unsafe or disrespected in any workplace, let alone our national parliament.’ He said ‘we cannot ask the people we represent to make change without also making real and lasting change and sacrifice in this very building’ and that ‘we need to be the example that the parliament ought to be’. That should ring as true for our Victorian parliament as it does for our federal one.

We should not balk from doing this – and I would hope that rather than this being used for political points or punches, that it is used as an opportunity to initiate some protections for those who work here now and into the future.

Nobody is perfect and this process may require us all to consider carefully how we act and react in different circumstances and what we can do better. When it comes to bullying and harassment this can only be a good thing.

This motion requires passage through the Legislative Council as part of the non-government business program, and then support from the Legislative Assembly, before the presiding officers write to the Commissioner to initiate this review and report back to the Parliament. I hope the support of this chamber will commence this process and the support of the Legislative Assembly will then follow.

Our country is going through a time of reckoning in how we respond to bullying and harassment.  We cannot make improvements if we don’t shine the light. I hope this provides an opportunity to reset – to review in a safe, trauma-informed way what is in place now, what is missing, and determine what we can do to make parliamentary workplaces safe for everyone. I thank the House.

Jenkins Report AHRC Executive SummaryPrime Minister’s statement