7 September 2023
I rise today in support of the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service Bill 2023 and the Members of Parliament (Staff) Amendment Bill 2023. These bills are another significant step towards improving our parliamentary workplace culture. We are a unique workplace, but for too long parliamentarians and our staff have not had the right structures in place to ensure that we are a safe, respectful and professional workplace. Before I became a member of parliament, I worked in hospitals and university departments, and these workplaces had strong human resources support and complaints processes to minimise power imbalances and harmful workplace environments. They were not always perfect, but they were strong frameworks, nevertheless, to help support a better workplace environment. Like many others in this place, when I first came here, I was very, very surprised that the same structures did not exist. That our nation’s parliament did not exemplify the standards of a professional workplace was seriously problematic for me.
In 2021, not long after I was elected, an independent review was established to investigate the Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces, and it found that unacceptably high numbers of people, particularly women, in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces experienced bullying, sexual harassment or attempted or actual sexual assault whilst at work—shocking. We’ve all seen the grave impacts of this; I certainly have. Throughout that process, I sat down with brilliant people full of potential who came here to contribute to their country and who are now dealing with the consequences of a culture which disbelieved and sidelined them when they tried to speak up about that abuse. Our workplace failed them. The review produced the Set the standard report, which made recommendations to ensure parliament is a safe, respectful place and that, importantly, it reflects best practice in prevention and then in the appropriate response to bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The Parliamentary Workplace Support Service Bill 2023 implements recommendation 11 of that Set the standard report. It legislates the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service, or PWSS as we’ve come to know it, to provide centralised HR support and develop policies for workplace strategies, work health and safety, and training. These policies, structures and trainings may seem simple, but they are fundamental to a strong workplace culture where people can truly thrive, not just survive, in their careers. In the interim, this bill creates a function of the PWSS to respond to misconduct and provide early intervention and resolution for workplace conflict. I note that these functions are temporary, pending the establishment of an independent parliamentary standards commission. Such a commission is vital so that everyone in this building, be it a parliamentarian, staffer, journalist, public servant or independent contractor, has somewhere trusted and independent to go when they experience misconduct. I urge the government to go further than this bill and legislate this independent parliamentary standards commission. It is a critical pillar of reforming the workplace in our parliament and one that I’ve been advocating for a very long time.
In 2020, I introduced the Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill, and that bill complemented, in fact it was the sister bill to, my Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill, a bill that now is almost identical to the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill that this parliament historically passed last year as another important step towards strengthening public confidence in this Commonwealth parliament. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill that I set out back then specifically set out a new parliamentary standards commission to assess, investigate, resolve or refer serious alleged breaches of the code of conduct. The commission would use the code of conduct, which is in place and was endorsed this year in this parliament, as a clear metric to identify and assess unethical conduct, conduct that we’ve unfortunately seen countless examples of in this parliament and that must not be repeated. Under my bill it was an independent office of the Parliament House within the Department of Parliamentary Services and reported through to the relevant privileges committee, to the Prime Minister or to the minister as specified.
Another key feature of that bill was that the parliamentary standards commission was to have the same powers as the Auditor-General to conduct investigations with appropriate safeguards to protect the rights to procedural fairness, rights to privacy, protection of personal reputation and advancement of public interest. It included provisions to deal with vexatious, frivolous or otherwise unreasonable claims. The commission I proposed was empowered to refer the most serious and systemic cases of potential corruption to the now National Anti-Corruption Commission for stronger objective investigation, if that was appropriate. The Prime Minister said, earlier this year, that the independent parliamentary standards commission will be established in the future. The Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister reiterated this when introducing the bill before us now. So I’ll be watching closely when they do and making sure that a new parliamentary standards commission has the strong powers it needs to deliver on this crucially important role.
Like I did with the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, I look forward to working with the government to make sure that the oversight body meets the standards of the Australian people and that bad behaviour is never again simply swept under the rug out of sight. Our position as elected officials should never trump the safety of the people who come to work in this place.
I thank Kate Jenkins and her team for their work on the Set the standard report, now a touchstone for this parliament workplace culture. I also thank the Parliamentary Leadership Taskforce, who oversees the implementation of the Set the standard report’s recommendations, and the staff consultation group, including a member of my own team, their work on these incredibly important bills. These bills are indeed a truly critical component of the national pro-integrity framework, but there is certainly much more work to do. I think we’re up for it. I look forward to participating in it. I want to see us be an exemplar workplace, and I know others in this place do too. I commend these bills to the House.