A shake up is well underway in the halls of power around Australia, with the New South Wales Government announcing another workplace review and the Federal Government accepting the recommendations of the Foster Review.
Former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has been commissioned by the New South Wales Government to review State Parliament and its management of unacceptable behaviour such as bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.
Ms Broderick, who has led reviews into complex workplaces such as the Australian Defence Force and the NSW Police, was engaged by the NSW Government to give expert advice on workplace culture and practice.
This second review follows the findings of a probe of NSW ministerial offices earlier this year by fellow former sex discrimination commissioner and former NSW minister Pru Goward.
The review into ministerial offices, which was not widely publicised, was ordered by Premier Gladys Berejiklian earlier this year after the allegations of sexual assault in Parliament House made by Brittany Higgins became public.
The Goward report delivered some sober findings, including that “the political ambitions of some staff and their frequent involvement in party-political activities further complicate a staff member’s readiness to complain.”
The review found a number of serious shortcomings currently existing within the system, and made a number of recommendations, including:
- The establishment of an independent process for those unwilling to have their complaint handled within a Ministerial Office;
- The establishment of clear and transparent processes to be followed where complaints are made, including where the complaint may constitute criminal conduct;
- Development of a best practice Respectful Workplace Policy, including investigative and reporting procedures to address bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct in
- Ministerial Offices to enhance the safety and security of staff;
- An increased focus on training for staff and Chiefs regarding their obligations;
- An anonymous survey to be conducted of all Ministers and their staff to establish a baseline for the subsequent impact of the new policies and procedures; and
- That the independent structure report regularly to the Premier on emerging trends and proposals to improve the respectful workplace policy.
The Broderick review will have a much wider scope, examining the complaints handling and support systems for employees across the Parliament, from MPs to staffers, cleaners and security and hospitality workers. The review is underway and will deliver a final report in February next year.
Federal Government adopts Foster Review recommendations
At a Federal level, the government has agreed to adopt all of the recommendations made by Stephanie Foster’s review into the procedures and processes relating to serious incidents in the parliamentary workplace.
The Foster review found that there had been 38 complaints related to the conduct of parliamentarians made by Parliament House staff since July 2017.
One of the recommendations from the review is a one-hour face-to-face mandatory training session on sexual harassment for government ministers, while a “name and shame” list of non-attendees will be considered for other members.
Other recommendations include:
- An independent role will be established for parliamentary employees to make confidential complaints about politicians and other staff;
- Workplace health and safety training for politicians will be mandatory for ministers; and
- After-hours security at Parliament House will be tightened.
The Federal Government is also in the process of establishing an independent body to deal with sexual assault and other sexual misconduct allegations, to make victims feel more comfortable and safe coming forward, although it has been criticised for not having a charter that includes investigating historical complaints.
Overhaul of Sex Discrimination laws
Earlier this year the Federal Government also announced it would overhaul the sexual discrimination laws, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), which relates to all Australian workplaces.
The proposed reforms include changes which will mean that public servants such as members of parliament, magistrates and judges face dismissal in the event they are found to have engaged in sexual harassment.
Until now, under the legislation politicians and judges have been considered exempt from the Act due to the fact they are technically not the complainant’s employer.
These are all positive steps forward within the State and Federal Governments, but it’s important to remember that sexual harassment affects all Australian workplaces.
As sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins told media recently, sexual harassment is more than ‘a few bad blokes’ … it ‘almost thrives in some workplaces’ and government should seriously consider mandating a positive duty for employers. This would mean that employers would have a legal obligation to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation ‘as far as possible’.