Last week, exactly one year after the Human Rights Commission completed its report on bullying and harassment in Parliament, a major step occurred in progress towards a safer and more respectful parliamentary workplace.

Largely obscured by the censure motion against Scott Morrison occurring on the same day, and with little fanfare, the joint select committee on parliamentary standards released draft codes of conduct for parliamentarians, their staff and all those who work in and visit parliamentary precincts.

It might be surprising to know the Australian Parliament is one of the very few parliaments in the world with no code of conduct for parliamentarians and their staff.

Several attempts to establish a code over the past 10 years were rejected.

The joint select committee report, and its draft behaviour codes, represent one of the key milestones in implementing the Human Rights Commission recommendations.

To many, it might seem little has happened since the Human Rights Commission handed down its landmark report Set the Standard, also known as the Jenkins Report.

But in fact a huge amount of work has occurred and is under way, to bring to life the complex and interlocking changes recommended. It is in 2023 that we will see the fruits of this work. I am optimistic about the changes occurring, for several reasons.

The first is because the Jenkins Review provided a detailed plan to create new rules, new institutions and new mechanisms for holding people accountable and for changing the culture of parliamentary workplaces. Both houses of parliament committed to implementing all 28 recommendations of the review. Now they are putting these new rules and mechanisms in place.

That is not easy, but there is a strong moral commitment to change. On the first sitting day of 2022, the two presiding officers acknowledged "the unacceptable history" of workplace bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in parliament and committed to change, stating: "Any bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault is unacceptable and wrong. We say sorry. Every workplace should be safe and respectful. This place and its members are committed to bringing about lasting and meaningful change to both culture and practice within our workplaces. We have failed to provide this in the past. We today declare our personal and collective commitment to make the changes required."

This bespeaks a norm change: people in parliament no longer find this behaviour acceptable and they are less willing to tolerate it. In the past parliament lacked the tools to deal with it, but those tools are now being created. However, beyond the tools, there is a change in thinking. It is part of ideational change around the world, signalled by the #MeToo movement.

A code of conduct establishes standards and rules, but we must be able to hold people accountable for breaching the rules. The Jenkins Review recommended parliament establish an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission to investigate complaints about breaches of the codes of conduct.

It will also be able to recommend sanctions for misconduct, ranging from written apologies to losing access to services, dismissal from committees or even suspension from parliament. Development of the independent commission is currently underway.

Sequencing is complex: the houses of parliament can only adopt the behaviour codes into their standing orders after the commission has been established and the possible sanctions legislated. This is why it is taking time to put the recommendations in place. But when they are finally created, they will be transformative.

Other pieces of new architecture aim to prevent misconduct and to change the culture. The Jenkins Review recommended an independent human resources body for parliamentarians and staff be created, to be called the Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture. This is one of the most powerful reforms because it aims to professionalise the workplace. Many of the problems with bullying and harassment arise because of a lack of professional practices.

This office will monitor and report on what employment practices exist in political offices and help to bring greater professionalism to these practices. Work has been under way this year on the design of the office. It must be given the role and powers it needs to be effective.

Along with optimism, there is some disappointment. This relates to reform of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, which sets the employment framework for staffers. The Jenkins Review recommended the act be comprehensively reviewed. Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet undertook this task and recommended some useful changes, but did not address the fundamental distortions of power in the act.

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If the government and Parliament follow PM&C's recommendations they will leave in place the anomalous situation where the prime minister controls all aspects of staffing for parliamentarians, a situation not found in other countries or in the Australian states.

Reforming the act is an important opportunity to give Parliament the authority to control and manage the staff of its own members. A parliamentary leadership taskforce is coordinating and driving all these changes. It is a multi-party cross-chamber group of eight parliamentarians, led by an independent chair.

They will need to bring the rest of parliament with them. Most of the taskforce, and the joint select committee, are women parliamentarians who are fully committed to delivering on the Jenkins Review recommendations, and to creating a more diverse, inclusive and safe parliamentary workplace. Their strong leadership is a cause for optimism as we move into a new year.

QOSHE - A safer workplace? We can finally hope - Maria Maley
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A safer workplace? We can finally hope

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04.12.2022

Last week, exactly one year after the Human Rights Commission completed its report on bullying and harassment in Parliament, a major step occurred in progress towards a safer and more respectful parliamentary workplace.

Largely obscured by the censure motion against Scott Morrison occurring on the same day, and with little fanfare, the joint select committee on parliamentary standards released draft codes of conduct for parliamentarians, their staff and all those who work in and visit parliamentary precincts.

It might be surprising to know the Australian Parliament is one of the very few parliaments in the world with no code of conduct for parliamentarians and their staff.

Several attempts to establish a code over the past 10 years were rejected.

The joint select committee report, and its draft behaviour codes, represent one of the key milestones in implementing the Human Rights Commission recommendations.

To many, it might seem little has happened since the Human Rights Commission handed down its landmark report Set the Standard, also known as the Jenkins Report.

But in fact a huge amount of work has occurred and is under way, to bring to life the complex and interlocking changes recommended. It is in 2023 that we will see the fruits of this work. I am optimistic about the changes occurring, for several reasons.

The first is because the Jenkins Review provided a detailed........

© Canberra Times


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