Yesterday both the House of Representatives and the Senate joined together to endorse the interim behaviour standards and code for parliamentarians, staff and Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces. This is the first time parliament has had a code of conduct, which is extraordinary in itself. I came to this parliament in 2019 calling for a code of conduct, as did my predecessor, Cathy McGowan. From hospitals to university departments, I’ve worked in many, many workplaces in my career where codes of conduct offset the risk of power imbalances and harmful workplace environments from forming, and this workplace should be no exception. Members across both chambers have had similar experiences in their own workplaces before they came here. For me, as a person who believes in the power of consensus, this was a landmark moment for our parliament, and we shouldn’t underestimate that. As one, with one voice, we recognise that we must do better. The public holds us to the highest standards of conduct, and so should we.
The Set the standard report found that an unacceptably high number of people, particularly women, in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces experienced bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault whilst at work. We’ve all seen the grave impacts of this. I certainly have. 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. I thank those people and the many people who came forward subsequently for their bravery, which really sparked us into getting to work on this. It shouldn’t have taken that, but it did, and we must now honour their bravery. As an MP with a young and mostly female staff, I do not want them to feel threatened in their workplace. As an MP who hosts volunteers from my electorate in parliament every single sitting week, I want their time here to be a catalysing moment that shapes their lives, not one that casts a long shadow.
Since the Set the standard report was published, I’ve used my voice to demand the implementation of all recommendations. The government has accepted this, but only six have been implemented in the year since it was tabled and we need to pick up the pace. We can’t afford for change to be slow. While endorsing the behaviour standards and code was an important step for progress, it’s nowhere near enough. The question now is how these standards will be enforced and what penalties will apply when they are transgressed. While I believe that people in this place do want to lead by example, we need to have real penalties for inappropriate conduct to have severe consequences.
The Set the standard report called for an independent parliamentary standards commission to enforce the code of conduct. The report specifically recommended that the commission be empowered to investigate and make findings of fact about the alleged breaches of the code of conduct and make recommendations for sanctions. These powers reflect my call in 2020 with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill, which included a code of conduct and that I was pleased to introduce as a private member’s bill. It called for a commissioner who could assess, investigate, resolve or refer serious alleged breaches of the new code of conduct. I was really pleased to share detailed information about the proposal with the Jenkins review and, indeed, with the committee. Again, I thank them for listening and I thank them for their work.
The Prime Minister said that the independent parliamentary standards commission will be established later this year. It is good—very good—that this is a priority, and it needs to have serious powers so it can deliver on the important role. For instance, this commission should have the same powers as the Auditor-General to conduct investigations with appropriate safeguards to protect the rights of people under investigation. As I did with the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, I really look forward to working with this government to make sure that the oversight body meets the standards of the Australian people and that bad behaviour is never again swept under the rug. Our position as elected officials should never trump the safety of the people who come to work in this place.
In closing, I want to thank all the members of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Standards, led so well by the member for Newcastle. These members worked hard to produce the interim behaviour standards and code. I particularly thank my colleague here, the member for North Sydney who outside of this place campaigned for a binding code of conduct to address bad behaviour and has followed through with passion and commitment now as a member of parliament. Thank you. Now, colleagues, it’s up to us. We owe it to the Australian public to lead and to deliver the cultural and systemic change to make this a safe and respectful workplace.