Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on Parliamentary Workplace Support Service Bill

7 September 2023

It is with pleasure I rise to speak on the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service Bill 2023 and the Service (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2023. These bills came about as a result of the shocking findings of the Human Rights Commission's independent review of the workplace culture here in Parliament House and across the country in parliament workplaces and the resulting Set the Standard report that came from it. We should remember the facts that came out of that report.

The Set the Standard report heard that 51 per cent of all people currently working in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces have experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault. The report found there was absence of adequate authoritative people and culture function for parliamentarians and their staff and a lack of standardised people management processes. The report was asked to make recommendations to ensure the Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful for all those who work in this place and the parliamentary electoral offices around the country. I commend the work of Kate Jenkins and her Set the Standard report which laid the foundation for this legislation. The bills are the product of extensive consultation with parliamentarians and staff across parliament, including through the parliamentary leadership taskforce, the staff consultation group and union representatives. I had the pleasure of being on the taskforce and whilst at times there has robust discussion it's pleasing we gotten to the point of legislation before the parliament to progress some of the recommendations of the Set the Standard report. It's clear there is still so far to go. I would like to thank all the members of the taskforce for their contributions, especially those staff and past staff who shared really confronting experiences and stories, who trusted in a system that let them down in their own employment to hope to better system for the others that would come after.

These bills seek to implement a start to better standards. The federal parliament is one of our most prominent workplaces. The people here should have the systems to go about work in a professional and safe environment. The Members of Parliament (Staff) Amendment Bill will modernise the act and improve transparency and clarify the recommendations. This bill will support cultural change. The bill will underline the responsibilities and obligations of members of parliament as the employer and it includes requirements intended to guide decision making by parliamentarians about employment matters and support fair outcomes and processes when making significant employment decisions. Appropriately, the bill provides for the further review within five years of the amendments commencing which means we have the opportunity to better this. I don’t think any legislation will be perfect in improving the standards.

The Parliamentary Workplace Support Service Bill 2023 implements recommendation 11 of Set the Standard. An important step of the first major legislation to deal with recommendations. It establishes the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service, PWSS, as an independent program to resolve problems earlier. Its key function also be around human resources' support for staff, policy development, education, and training, review, monitoring, evaluation and reporting. The PWSS must prepare annual reports on gender and diversity of employees, gender equality and remuneration, employment of MoPS staff, progress and prevention of and response to unacceptable conduct, culture and performance, work, health and safety monitors. It is a very broad remit the PWSS will seek to improve. Parliamentarians would also be required to consult with a new PWSS, prior to making a decision in relation to the employment of staff, whether that is, especially if it's in relation to termination or suspension of staff members with or without pay. The new provision for temporary suspension will offer alternatives and address risks as far too often those who spoke up saw themselves shuffled on or terminated. There is much to be done better. We know it's been slow, with many changes still to come and more legislation in relation to, especially codes of conduct implementation, and the independent commission to co-come. It's been two years since Set the Standard was handed down. We need to work quickly, and I know we're focused on the task to establish an independent commission which will ultimately implement the codes of conduct. I think there needs to be a greater level of training in employment law for ministers and members of parliament because we need to remember, for all those in this place, there isn't automatically experience when it comes to managing people. As we take on responsibilities of representing our electorates but also employing staff it is important that awareness of requirements are had by members of parliament. So whilst there is more legislation to be implemented, I support these bills as an essential first step.

It is impossible to talk about this the progress without talking about even events of this week. No legislation can ultimately change what is wrong with the culture of this place. It needs to come from members and it needs to come from leadership, especially when it comes to the major parties. This week's events in question time have shown we still have a long way to go. We have seen senior members of major parties, in particular the opposition, behave in a way that is unbecoming of this parliament, unbecoming during question time. We should not have pointing, heckling, yelling, encourage of people in the gallery, to participate in the proceedings of this place. To disregard the warnings that have been made by the Speaker in relation to the conduct that is appropriate for this place. Over the last two days, I think it's shown just how far that culture still has to change. This should be a place of debate, a respectful exchange of ideas, it can be robust, but it should never be disrespectful, and it should never be to a point that, and to a standard, not befitting of a place like here. We have children in the gallery here in question time. They come away incredibly disillusioned and horrified that this is the standard. If this is the place, the heart of our nation, where we come up with laws that will direct the lives of so many millions of people, and this is behaviour and conduct accepted, then what example are we setting the next generation of these children that come and watch?

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending an event for international women's forum. Sadly, these are leaders in business, in arts, in non-for profit and profit organisations, and vast experiences in a world outside this place and they sat through the question time of yesterday and were horrified. They were horrified at the incredible waste of time and taxpayer money that this represented because there were no serious answers provided and there was conduct that was entirely inappropriate, that would never be accepted in any other workplace. So I ask every member of this place to take responsibility, every one of us, for our conduct in this place and what example that sets to never let the firey or the conviction of the rightness of your argument over come what is correct behaviour. We need to make sure that the culture here changes and that is a responsibility on everyone of us. While this legislation improves, we have to do more. You cannot assume you conduct yourself in an aggressive harassing way and walk out of this chamber and then become a respectful boss for your employees. You are somehow going to then adopt a whole different standard of conduct. This is where it's a slippery slope and where the problems start. So it's incredibly important that every member in this place and the other place pause and reflect on their conduct and own sure they apply at all times the highest standards, thank you.