Parliament's improved workplace culture is an example for others
First Published in The Australian newspaper, 8 February 2023, by Australia's National Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
After years of headlines about the toxic workplace culture at Federal Parliament, codes of conduct will for the first time apply to all parliamentarians and staffers. The codes of were yesterday endorsed by the Senate (soon to be endorsed by the House) and a report was tabled showing great progress has been made towards transforming parliament’s workplace culture to one that is safe and respectful. It sets an example for workplaces across the country where proactive change is not only possible, but essential.
The codes of conduct were a key recommendation from the Set the Standard report of the independent review I led for the Australian Human Rights Commission into the workplace culture at parliament in 2021. We heard from hundreds of current and former parliamentary workers about their experiences of abuse, harassment, and discrimination. The review recommended a cross-party Parliamentary Leadership Taskforce be charged with implementing its 28 recommendations to improve the workplace culture at parliament. Yesterday the Taskforce tabled its first annual progress report, which details steps that have been taken. The Prime Minister, Minister for Women, and all party leaders were among those who spoke in parliament of their commitment to change.
Parliament has made many improvements in the past year, including better protections for staff against discrimination and unfair termination, new training and induction programs, independent workplace support services, and family friendly changes to the sitting calendar. Yesterday’s progress report indicated other changes are also well advanced, including a new human resources function for parliamentarians and staff, establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission, and better accessibility and inclusion practices. The MOP(S) Act has also been reviewed, with recommendations yet to be implemented.
These reforms have been matched by cultural change. I have been heartened by the many parliamentary workers who have told me quietly that parliament has improved as a workplace, to the surprise of many long-term staffers. Until now, the attitude for some has been, “put up with abuse or leave”. One told me in her long career at parliament she never thought she would see the day when codes of conduct would apply.
That’s not to say parliament is the perfect workplace. Many parliamentary workers, past and present, still carry the scars of their experiences and some – unacceptably – continue to face challenges. However, the Parliamentary Leadership Taskforce is making excellent progress, having already implemented six recommendations from Set the Standard, and with 21 more recommendations either partly implemented or in progress.
We called the review report ‘Set the Standard’ precisely because parliament is a standard bearer for workplaces all around the country. If parliament can make these improvements – particularly given the embedded challenges of power imbalances, irregular employment conditions, and a longstanding culture of inappropriate behaviour – then surely any workplace in the country can introduce positive changes to achieve a more respectful work environment.
Such change is greatly needed in many workplaces. Last November, I published a major survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which found that one in three workers had experienced sexual harassment in their workplace over the past five years. The report found that rates of sexual harassment were particularly high in the Media and Telecommunications sector (64%), Arts and Recreation Services (44%), Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Services (40%), and Retail Trade (40%).
No industry is immune from workplace sexual harassment. Just this week, the ABC’s Four Corners program revealed that healthcare workers who were known to have perpetrated serious sexual assault were allowed to continue practicing. Many workplaces have already implemented good systems for addressing workplace sexual harassment when it occurs, but far more effort is required by employers to prevent incidents from happening in the first place: In fact, all Australian employers now have a legal obligation to do exactly that.
In November, the Federal Government passed the Respect@Work Bill, which legislated a positive duty on employers to implement measures to prevent workplace sexual harassment. It shifts our system from being purely reactive to also being proactive, making employers responsible for preventing sexual harassment rather than just responding to it. This fundamental change was a key recommendation of the Respect@Work report, which I delivered for the Australian Human Rights Commission in March 2020.
The website www.respectatwork.gov.au provides employers with the resources and information they need to implement these changes. It is a one-stop-shop that includes good-practice guides, training materials, workplace-assessment tools, videos, information, and guidance. All the material on the website is free and accessible.
Employers no longer have any excuse. The Australian community expects all workplaces to be respectful, free from abuse and harassment, and with equal opportunity. Leaders in all Australian workplaces should look to the changes being made in parliament as an example to follow: it is time for respect to become the norm in all Australian workplaces.