Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the Set the Standards Bill

15 February 2022

Ms STEGGALL (Warringah) (18:17): I rise to speak on the Parliamentary Workplace Reform (Set the Standard Measures No. 1) Bill 2022. This is a bill that seeks to strengthen the rights of and protections for employees in parliamentary workplaces and, with that stated aim, I support the bill before us. This legislation will implement recommendations 17 and 24 of the Set the standard report of the independent review into Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces carried out by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Kate Jenkins, and provided to the Australian government on 30 November 2021.

As a member of the task force charged with implementing the 28 recommendations of this vital review, I strongly support this bill and again reiterate my commitment to ensuring that all 28 recommendations of the review be implemented in full. Just a week ago we gathered in this very chamber to see the first recommendation of that review delivered through the reading of the joint statement of acknowledgement by the Speaker and the President of the Senate. It was a powerful moment for this parliament but, more importantly, for the survivor advocates who joined us in the chamber that day.

I would like to apologise to all of those who would also have liked to have been here to see that apology and hear that apology in person—in particular, Dhanya Mani and others who raised their concerns for some time in previous years and have not felt heard or have not felt that their concerns were properly acted upon. Whilst it's incredibly important that we have now acted upon complaints and better heard the accounts, it is important that we continue to work at having a better process to hear and engage with staff that have had issues. We also have to make sure that we are fully representing all people who have had those experiences. Having spent time with the women that were able to attend here last week afterwards, I know that was a very challenging experience for them to be here that day, but it was also an important step that they did not want to miss, so I am incredibly sorry to all those that were not given that opportunity.

The commission had recommended that 'leaders within the parliament deliver' that 'Statement of Acknowledgement' to publicly acknowledge the 'experiences of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in CPWs; the impact of the misconduct on individuals; and the lack of action taken in the past.' Vitally, the delivery of that statement demonstrated a 'commitment to change, with shared accountability for progress.'

In her report, Commissioner Jenkins spelt out the importance of why a public statement from this parliament was required:

An acknowledgement of the impact of misconduct is important for validating the experience of individuals who have been subject to harm under the watch of leaders in CPWs—

Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces—

Further, an acknowledgement can start to restore the trust between individuals who have experienced misconduct … It would be an important demonstration by leaders in these workplaces that they acknowledge the experiences, recent and past, and are committed to working together to ensure—

these workplaces—

are safe and respectful.

It's for this reason that this bill is similarly important. By implementing two more of those important recommendations of the Jenkins review, we're demonstrating in this place a collective 'commitment to change'. This bill before us now will implement recommendations 17 and 24, essentially putting beyond doubt that employees of members of parliament and senators are protected by the provisions of the Fair Work Act, the Work Health and Safety Act, the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. This should be a given. This shouldn't have to be spelt out, but the sad reality is that it does have to be because of past practices in this place.

There's no denying that this is an incredibly rewarding workplace but also an unbelievably challenging one. For the staff that sign up, they deal with some of the most emotional and confronting workloads, whether it's working with our community, assisting people with NDIS or aged-care packages, helping separated families, taking very distressing phone calls or working here in parliament with tight deadlines, fierce debate, intense negotiations and long hours. It's already such an intense workplace any hint of harassment, bullying or sexual assault would only compound existing trauma.

It's up to all of us to change the culture in this place. We don't need to wait for legislation or codes of conduct; we can each play our part, but this bill is a good first step. This bill amends the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984, the MOP(S) Act, to provide that reasons for termination of employment must be given in writing and to clarify that the existing legislative requirements apply to the termination of employments over the MOP(S) Act employees. It also amends the Work Health and Safety Act to clarify the duties parliamentarians owe under that act to their employee. Finally, it also amends the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act to clarify that these laws apply to staff employed or engaged under the MOP(S) Act as per recommendation 24 of the Jenkins report.

In summary, this bill seeks to put beyond doubt the employees of members of parliament and senators are protected by the provisions of the Fair Work Act, the Work Health and Safety Act, the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. By providing these assurances I hope it will contribute to our overall goal of creating safe and respectful workplaces for our staff.

It's important to note that recommendation 17 came about because there were strong misconceptions about the right of parliamentarians to dismiss their employees under current arrangements. It was a recurring theme throughout the Jenkins inquiry—people held back from making complaints out of a genuine fear and a sense of job insecurity, the perception being that a parliamentarian could hire and fire staff at their own whim. A participant noted:

The ability of an MP to terminate a staff member without due grounds should be significantly reined in, as I believe the fear of being sacked is fundamentally what prevents staff from reporting workplace bullying and harassment.

Even the Department of Finance, the very department that has oversight of the employment of parliamentary staff, conceded this point in their submissions to the Jenkins inquiry. So, if the very department in charge of employment concedes there is a misconception here, it's only appropriate that the issue be clarified, and that's what we seek to do in this legislation.

We also need to use this opportunity to send a message to all MOP(S) Act employees that they have protection. They cannot be fired at the whim of an MP or senator. That misconception has helped perpetrate the culture of bullying, harassment, secrecy and cover-up. That must stop now. Please know your rights, your rights that are being strengthened as a result of this legislation.

I also want to refer to the replacement explanatory memorandum that has been provided and tabled in the House today, because it has an important change to the document that was originally tabled. The new replacement memorandum has an additional line regarding a notice of termination. To reflect the strengthening of employees' rights, the document now states that such a notice would need to provide in detail the reasons for termination. It's an important addition. No longer can it be a vague, tick-a-box exercise. A detailed reason for termination must be given. I think it's important that the government has acknowledged this and included it in the explanatory memorandum.

The other component of this bill today is to ensure protections against age and disability discrimination. The recommendation was to amend the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act to clarify that the laws apply to staff and consultants employed or engaged under the MOP(S) Act. It's important that the full suite of antidiscrimination laws contribute to the safe and respectful workplace we are trying to create through implementing the Jenkins report. It's important, again, to make it abundantly clear that employees in parliamentary workplaces are covered and protected under these acts.

Some participants in the review who identified as a person with a disability spoke about how they were excluded in the workplace or were viewed by managers and colleagues only through the lens of their disability. They felt excluded from decision-making roles and felt that they were treated differently to able-bodied colleagues. As a side note, the commission also recorded that participants noted the general lack of accessibility of Parliament House, particularly for people with mobility issues. They felt that this building not only excluded people with disability from physically accessing the building and its spaces but also sends a message about who belongs and is entitled to work in these workplaces.

This is something that I highlighted these with the Speaker in December 2019 when I invited a group of guests to come to Parliament House to witness the handing over of a petition highlighting inequity and treatment of people over 65 in accessing the NDIS. I was horrified and incredibly embarrassed that they described to me the difficulty of gaining entry through security, accessing public viewing galleries and even using so-called accessible toilets. I wrote to the Speaker at the time and was assured that these considerations would be incorporated in a future review and audit of Parliament House. I think this needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. This is the people's house, and we cannot have a situation where some people are excluded because of their disability.

I would like to refer to some of the comments made in the other place about this legislation. In introducing the bill, the assistant minister, Senator Duniam, said:

The Bill would progress important and significant reforms to help ensure that Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces are workplaces where expected standards of behaviour are modelled, championed and enforced …

It's a lofty ambition, and I hope we can live up to it. It's a promising sentiment. Minister Birmingham said in his speech:

For the recommendations that are solely within the government's responsibility and control, our intention is they be implemented within the recommended time frames. Thus far, that is on track for all of those recommendations. We are conscious that the recommendations are complex, but they are also important, especially those such as establishing the office of parliamentary standards and culture.

Again, that's a promising and welcomed sentiment, but we must first make sure that we do this. We need actions rather than words.

Senator Waters, in the other place, a fellow member of the implementation task force, pointed out that this bill alone will not change the culture of shaming and silencing that stopped staff coming forward. She, in fact, detailed the experiences of Dhanya Mani, another brave former staff member who has been so poorly treated and has fought against the system to ensure her voice and the voice of others can be heard. This is an important step. We need to make sure that all the recommendations are implemented. We need to take note that the Jenkins review, which was rendered in relation to all workplaces, included the introduction of a positive duty on employers in this workplace and all workplaces to ensure that staff are safe, to ensure that it's not just all words but also real action.

Positive duties put an obligation on employers to protect their staff from sexual harassment in the workplace. It is the most important cultural change to help seriously address sexual harassment in our workplaces. It needs to happen. It's disappointing that the government simply has not tackled that in this term of parliament. A positive duty in parliamentary workplaces was one of the most prominent recommendations of the Respect@Workreport. It had the support of a vast array of groups, from the Business Council of Australia to the ACTU, from the Law Council to the Human Rights Commission. Yet that report and those recommendations have sat untouched. We simply cannot allow that to happen to the Set the standard report.

I welcome the government's commitment to implementing the recommendations. I repeat my call that we implement all the recommendations of the previous Jenkins report in relation to Australian workplaces and respect in Australian workplaces. I welcome the commitment to implementing the recommendations. But I have to note that it was only 24 hours after we delivered that statement to the House that we saw this parliament, this chamber, sit until 5 am. I note the Speaker's comments in relation to that being the standard practice and the convention of how that operated. But it showed that dissonance that, while we are here talking about changing culture, only 24 hours after implementing that change we were already acting contrary in this place to the very recommendations.

We have to change the way this is done. It starts with everyone in this place. The government is in a position to do so. It is important to note that, at the end of the day, it is conduct and behaviour that will judge how serious the desire is to change the culture in this place and ensure it is the gold standard workplace that it should be. This should be the gold standard of workplaces in Australia. We have a long way to go, but I welcome today's first step.