Parliamentary Workplace Reform (Set the Standard) Bill 2022

House of Representatives 15/02/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (17:55): I also support the Parliamentary Workplace Reform (Set the Standard Measures No. 1) Bill 2022. It implements much-needed reform that is well overdue in this building, but it is just one step in the process of making Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces safer by implementing some of the recommendations from the Jenkins review. It’s just one step, and we have many more to go.

It’s not just about us here, as important as this place is—the MPs, the staff, the workers in this place; it’s really about every woman in every workplace around Australia. Our job here will not really be done until we can say there are structures in place to ensure that every woman is safe in the workplaces around the country, including ours, and in homes and even in schools. Our job will not be done until there is equality in every place and until women have the same opportunity to achieve whatever they want as any man. I don’t think we can say that job will be done until we can say that.

There has been a lot of commentary and analysis about the toxic culture in Canberra—that bad behaviour has contributed to the bad culture of this place. But what people rarely ask is: What contributes to this culture? What are the contributing factors to this culture? We know that culture is determined by the behaviours and structures that are in place. While there has been bad behaviour that has occurred in this place; there has also been a lack of structure that has let people down. It’s remarkable to me that in a building which 5,000 or so people descend on for weeks at a time, which involves long, late working hours, where there’s a mix of power, a power imbalance and a lack of accountability, in the place where the actual laws of the land are made, the Commonwealth parliament, there’s an absence of legal mechanisms, of HR structures, to deal directly with harassment, bullying and assault allegations.

Instead there are some 227 MP and senator offices that are effectively little fiefdoms, and each office deals with the transgressions, the assaults, the harassment and the allegations. Effectively there’s a monarchy in each and every office. That is bad structure, and bad culture emanates from that. When you have a situation or an issue in an MP’s or senator’s office where there may be an allegation of harassment between staff members, how can the MP or the senator be the one to fairly adjudicate on that? Every workplace that I worked at before I entered parliament had an arms-length HR department or legal department and proper mechanisms to deal with those issues. That’s been lacking here, and that’s what I mean by the absence of culture.

We’ve also talked about behaviour and role modelling. As the previous speaker, the member for McEwen pointed out, we have in our party—we’re not perfect—women in positions of leadership. That actually matters. They are role models that set a standard of behaviour. It also educates and informs our understanding of how we should be dealing with each other. That is something that, as the member for McEwen pointed out, has been of exceptional importance for the Labor Party in setting our standards to improve. Our caucus is almost 50 per cent women, and there are women in positions of leadership. That’s not true often of many workplaces around the country, although it is somewhat better in the Public Service. I remember working in the Public Service, and most of my supervisors were women. For me it was basically understanding that, regardless of one’s gender, it was about their merit, their hard work and so on. That was an important lesson for me through the workplaces that I experienced.

But, after a year or more of talking about these issues, not much has changed in some respects, as far as the actual structures that are or aren’t in place are concerned. I would hope that the behaviours have changed and improved over that time as well. Just last week we sat in this place until 5 am, had a few hours break and then came back for another day of work. There are not many workplaces around Australia that would expect this of their workers. To be clear, I know that I’m here to do a job: to represent the people of Wills. Most of my colleagues here are the same: they understand that we’re signing up for a job and that it’s not a nine-to-five job. We understand that. The point is, though, that the MPs, the staff and the journalists—all the people in this building who regularly work very odd and long hours—do so in a high-pressure environment with high stakes. You can see that that is one of the reasons the Jenkins review found working at this parliament to be unsafe. It’s a contributing factor.

The Kate Jenkins report also found that one in three parliamentary workers have faced sexual harassment and, out of those people, 84 per cent did not seek support or advice. That’s a startlingly high number. To me, it shows that the lack of structure and the lack of mechanisms in place have meant that people have not been able to seek support or advice with respect to the harassment that they may have experienced.

Many people ask why this is. As I said, we know why: when people in this place do the wrong thing, there’s not really a structure or even a culture to deal with the problem, at least effectively. As I said, it’s sometimes left up to the MP or senator to determine this in their own office. There’s no independent arbiter for allegations of harassment, bullying and assault. There is no arms-length process in the workplace, in a sense. There is no HR department or legal mechanisms in that respect. I think this structural deficit enables bad behaviour. People behave badly, but the structure, or the lack of it, also enables that bad behaviour and the overall culture.

But changing that culture is more than just talking about it, and that’s what parts of this bill are fundamentally about. We have to match our rhetoric and our need for change with action. So we need to change those structures and set the standards that people can abide by. When we get this right—and I hope we will and I’m confident that we can—it can contribute and set an example for better behaviour, and that then becomes the norm. It becomes accepted, as I have experienced in other workplaces, as I mentioned. I think every woman in this building deserves that, at the very least.

The bill implements recommendations 17 and 24 from the Jenkins review. We know that recommendation 17 is that the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 be amended to make clear that the unfair dismissal provisions of the Fair Work Act apply to MOP(S) Act staff and that a written notice of termination specifying the reasons for termination must be provided. Recommendation 17 also provides that it should be made clear that the Work Health and Safety Act applies to parliamentarians in their capacity as employers. Recommendation 24 is that the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act be amended to clarify that those laws apply to MOP(S) Act staff. We know that the lack of job security for parliamentarians’ staff is a major barrier to staff raising complaints. That’s been quite clear in the review and the inquiry. The lack of job security results in power imbalance, which makes it easier—if that’s the right word—for bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault to occur and harder for complainants to speak up, because they don’t have the support network to allow them to raise those issues. Legislating these two recommendations of the Jenkins review will help provide greater job security for staff and highlight to parliamentarians their obligations as employers. It’s a positive step. The parliament has also decided to establish a joint standing committee on parliamentary standards to oversee standards and accountability in this place, which I warmly welcome.

But these are only the first steps in making sure our workplaces—this workplace particularly—are safe and inclusive. The Labor Party have committed to working towards implementing all recommendations in the Set the standard report, and we will consult with our parliamentary and electorate staff, the relevant unions and workplace representatives to do this. Our staff are the priority in this process. This is their workplace. And, like all Australians, they deserve to feel safe and supported in their work environment.

Labor have a long-held commitment to ensure our parliamentary workplace is a safe and respectful place for everyone. We are committed to gender equality and promoting and supporting women’s leadership in the parliament, but it is certainly true that there is still much work to be done.