Parliament House staff call for change, 'safe working environment'

 Staff at Parliament House say more needs to be done to keep them safe. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Staff at Parliament House say more needs to be done to keep them safe. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Political staffers and public servants from at least five agencies have united in a call for action on bullying and harassment in Parliament House, demanding a confidential complaints process that "ensures there are consequences for bad behaviour".

An open letter endorsed by union members across Parliament House said the revelations of the past month, including an allegation by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins that she was raped in Parliament House, reports of political staffers taking and sharing explicit images, including one who performed a sex act on a female MP's desk, had been deeply disturbing.

"The work we do for our democracy is incredibly important, but our workplaces have significant power imbalances, which at times allows bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault to fester and go unpunished," the letter from members of the Community and Public Sector Union said.

In a significant move, the letter includes staff from a range of departments, including political staffers and public servants from the Department of Parliamentary Services, Department of the House of Representatives and the Department of the Senate. It also includes staff from the Department of Finance and the Parliamentary Budget Office.

The power imbalance between Members of Parliament and staff in Parliament House has been in the spotlight since the rape allegation came to light a month ago. A survey of staff in the Department of the House of Representatives also showed staff felt they had no option but to "suck it up" if mistreated by MPs.

Staff made five demands in the letter. The first was for a victim-centric complaints process staff can be confident in "that ensures there are consequences for poor behaviour".

Parliamentarians and staff should have to undergo mandatory training, with safe reporting mechanisms for complaints and data to be reported to workplace health and safety committees. Staff want "a safe workplace that guarantees workers' workplace health and safety rights".

The letter also calls for measures to mitigate gendered violence and sexual harassment to be included in the enterprise agreement for political staffers currently under negotiation. A lengthy clause, that would have required the government to protect staff from sexual harassment and bullying, was rejected as part of the negotiations last year.

According to the proposal the government would have had to recognise "unique risks and hazards exist in the employment of Member of Parliament Staff (MoPS) including but not limited to the asymmetrical power structures of the workplace and obstacles that exist in reporting incidents".

It also would have created an obligation for the government to "provide a working environment that is safe" and "take all reasonable steps to remove sexual harassment, gendered violence, third party violence, bullying from the workplace".

The letter signed by staff on Wednesday wants the provision to be included in workplace health and safety policies for all departments working in Parliament House, until it can be inserted into industrial agreements.

The letter also called for appropriate and specialised support services for all staff in parliamentary workplaces, and the immediate implementation of the 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins that was handed down last year.

"There are now multiple reviews and processes under way examining workplace culture in Parliament House and associated workplaces," the letter said.

"It is incumbent on the government, all political parties, parliamentarians, parliamentary departments, and APS agencies to act now in the interests of workers in Parliament House."


Staff met with Community and Public Sector Union National Secretary Melissa Donnelly and Australian Council of Trade Unions President Michele O'Neil on Wednesday, where the letter was signed.

"Respect and safety at work are non-negotiable. Our members across all departments that work in parliament have had enough, and they are demanding action for a safe workplace," Ms Donnelly said.

Ms O'Neil said it was time for action.

"The Morrison Government has been dragged to the realisation that the workplace culture in Parliament House is toxic and dangerous, especially to women," she said.

"This is not news to workers who go to work every day in a high-risk workplace where sexism is rife, sexual harassment is common and sexual assaults are alleged to have happened.

"These demands if met would provide clear and confidential reporting lines, consequences for actions, training, support and obligations to mitigate risk."

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This story Parliament House staff call for change, 'safe working environment' first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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