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Sex discrimination commissioner finds gender inequality key driver of toxic culture in federal parliament

·5-min read

Landmark report finds one in three workers have faced sexual harassment and 84% of those did not seek support or advice


Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, has recommended a significant overhaul of federal parliament’s toxic workplace culture after handing down her landmark report that found one in three staffers had been sexually harassed.

The Jenkins inquiry into parliament’s workplace culture was triggered after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped after hours in a ministerial office in March 2019. Higgins’ allegations are the subject of separate criminal proceedings.

The review found gender inequality in the political ecosystem was a key driver of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault within commonwealth parliamentary workplaces. It found that power imbalances and the misuse of power, was “one of the primary drivers of misconduct”.

Among key insights in a survey undertaken to inform the review, 37% of respondents in parliamentary workplaces had personally experienced bullying and 33% of people had personally experienced sexual harassment, with 1% experiencing an actual or attempted sexual assault. 84% of people who experienced sexual harassment did not seek support or advice.

The report calls for a new code of conduct for parliamentarians and their staff as part of normalising employment conventions. It says that code should address current legal requirements that prohibit bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and workplace discrimination.

As part of structural reforms, Jenkins recommended the establishment of a new Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture to provide centralised human resources support, including policy development, training, advice, support and education.

It also recommended the creation of an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission “to ensure that there are independent and consistent responses to reports and complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault” in parliamentary workplaces.

The commission would operate with delegated power and “operate a fair, independent, confidential and transparent system to receive disclosures, handle informal and formal complaints”.

Related: Sexual harassment more than ‘a few bad blokes’ and preventive measures needed, Kate Jenkins says

The report also recommends new targets to achieve gender balance among parliamentarians “as part of a 10-year strategy designed to advance gender equality, diversity and inclusion” – as well as stronger protections for staff against arbitrary dismissal, including through amendments to the Members of parliament Staff Act – the legislation under which political staffers are employed.

As part of a recommended cultural shift, Jenkins urged the presiding officers to review the standing orders of the parliament with a view to eliminating language, behaviour and practices that are sexist or otherwise exclusionary and discriminatory, and improving safety and respect in the parliamentary chambers.

She said it was time to review the parliamentary sitting calendar and the daily order of business to enhance “wellbeing, balance and flexibility for parliamentarians and workers in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces”.

As part of overhauling what Jenkins characterised as the “work hard play hard” culture, she recommended parliament develop and implement consistent and comprehensive alcohol policies across commonwealth parliamentary workplaces “with a view to restricting availability in line with work health and safety obligations, and the principle of harm minimisation”.

The review found as well as an entrenched gender imbalance in parliamentary workplaces and a culture that allowed misuses of power, Jenkins said parliament lacked a culture of accountability.

She said people interviewed as part of the review reported that people who engaged in misconduct were very often rewarded. Jenkins said there were particular difficulties sanctioning parliamentarians who engaged in misconduct “because they do not have an employer”.

“Throughout the review, the commission heard about a lack of diversity across commonwealth parliamentary offices, the privilege of some groups of people, and the marginalisation and exclusion of others,” the report finds.

“Certain marginalised groups of people … experienced greater vulnerability to misconduct, as well as specific and unique experiences of discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault”.

The sex discrimination commissioner recommended the reform process begin with a statement of acknowledgment to “acknowledge the harm, caused by bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces.”

Higgins, who was briefed by Jenkins ahead of the public release of the report on Tuesday, issued a short statement on Tuesday. “I want to thank the many brave people who shared their stories which contributed to this review,” the former staffer said.

“I hope all sides of politics not only commit to but implement these recommendations in full”.

Scott Morrison said the recommendations would be the responsibility of all in the parliament, not just the Coalition. Morrison said the statistics uncovered by the review were “appalling and disturbing”.

But he acknowledged he wasn’t shocked. “I wish I found them more surprising,” the prime minister said.

Jenkins told reporters the recommendations to overhaul structures and culture was designed “to bring parliamentary workplaces into line with the standards expected of all modern Australian workplaces and support all parts of the parliament to perform at their best”.

Related: Morrison government failing women with lack of action on gender inequality in workforce, ACTU says

Jenkins was thwarted by the Morrison government in a separate process recommending the imposition of a positive duty on employers to stamp out sexual harassment. The new review recommends establishing a follow up external independent review to examine the implementation of recommendations made in this report “within 18 months of its tabling in the parliament”.

Asked whether she was confident the recommendations would be followed, Jenkins said: “I’m also really certain that this piece of work reflects the voices of the people that work in there, including that 147 current and former parliamentarians who participated – so there’s a really good ground for this to be implemented”.

“I will look forward to the response in due course,” she said.

The man accused of raping Higgins in parliament house March 2019 will stand trial in June. Bruce Lehrmann is pleading not guilty to the charge and denies that any form of sexual activity took place.

The Australian Capital Territory supreme court earlier this month extended Lehrmann’s bail until a criminal case conference in February, and set a tentative date of 6 June for a trial expected to last three to four weeks.

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