Inside Story

Dealing with toxic parliaments

Can Australia learn from how legislatures in other countries are tackling the problem?

Marian Sawer 1 March 2021 949 words

Progress: NZ speaker Trevor Mallard and consultant Debbie Francis releasing the findings of Francis’s investigation of bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff in May 2019. Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Back in 2003, when the Senate amended its standing orders to allow breastfeeding in the chamber, Australia’s parliament seemed to be taking a lead in creating a more inclusive workplace. By the time an alleged rape took place in the defence minister’s office a decade and a half later, it was clear Australia had become a laggard.

Workplace bullying and harassment have become endemic in a workplace characterised by precarious employment, high pressure, long hours and the demands of party loyalty. Unlike other employers, politicians can’t generally be dismissed for behaving badly towards their staff. Complainants find that partisan interests trump commitment to any kind of equality, and often echo a response recorded in a European survey: “I didn’t want to make the incident public. I didn’t want to damage my party.” And with political employment now the most common pathway to elected office, the perceived hostility of the parliamentary workplace has obvious implications for women’s political careers.

For the past twenty years the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, joined more recently by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, has sought to set standards for what the two organisations call gender-sensitive parliaments. Inter-Parliamentary Union members, including Australia, endorsed a plan of action for gender-sensitive parliaments in 2012, and individual parliaments have responded in different ways.

In the Canada, Iceland and European parliaments, MPs must sign a commitment to help create a work environment free of sexual harassment. A failure to do so in the European Parliament disqualifies an MEP from being appointed as a rapporteur — responsible for steering a piece of legislation — or participating in official delegations. The European Parliament also provides training for parliamentarians in managing and staffing their offices.

Most relevant to Australia are the policies, codes of conduct and complaints mechanisms recently adopted in Canada and Britain. In both countries staffers are publicly funded but directly employed by MPs with the power to hire and fire, creating the same structural problem as exists here.

Canada’s House of Commons led the way in 2014 with a policy to prevent harassment of political staffers. But it was criticised for lacking a fully independent grievance process, with staffers required to raise matters first with their employing MP, despite their employment being largely dependent on the MP’s goodwill.

Under the latest version of the policy, approved in January, the office of the Chief Human Resources Officer has primary responsibility for training all new MPs and employees within three months of their arrival, and again every three years. The office also handles complaints and publishes an annual report on the parliamentary website. In 2019–20 it handled two complaints of abuse of authority, two of harassment and one of sexual harassment. A separate code of conduct is designed to eliminate sexual harassment among MPs.

In Britain an independent inquiry into the bullying and harassment of staff, headed by Dame Laura Cox, was established in the wake of the 2017 “Pestminster” scandal. Even before the inquiry reported, the House of Commons adopted a Behaviour Code, with accompanying policies on bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. These were to be implemented through an independent complaints and grievance scheme, a process in which Cox recommended MPs should play no part. Since last year an independent expert panel has had the power to recommend an MP be suspended or expelled, or face other serious sanctions. Such recommendations need to be approved by the House of Commons, but without debate, in the interests of the complainant’s confidentiality.

Another independent inquiry, this one by Gemma White QC, heard from many staffers and emphasised their uniquely vulnerable position. Many considered that complaining about bullying and harassment was career suicide. The UK grievance scheme has now been extended to former staffers — the group most likely to take advantage of it, White noted — which it is hoped will influence MPs’ behaviour. In Britain, as in Canada, all newly elected MPs are required to attend training sessions.

Despite staffers being employed centrally in New Zealand, many of the same dynamics are in play. In 2018 the parliamentary speaker, Trevor Mallard, initiated a review by independent consultant Debbie Francis that found evidence of serious bullying of staff and other unacceptable behaviour, including sexual harassment and even sexual assault. A new code of conduct, drafted by a cross-party group of MPs, has been signed by all parties on a voluntary basis, leaving the speaker and party whips to enforce it. Although no agreement has been reached on the creation of an independent complaints commissioner, Mallard said last year that he had begun requiring “the worst-behaving MPs” to undergo workplace training before being allowed staff in their office.

What can Australia learn from these initiatives? First we need to acknowledge the problem. Then we need an independent inquiry to assess the extent of bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, and make recommendations informed by the views of staffers themselves — particularly former staffers, who are freer to speak. Out of that inquiry must come a code of conduct and an independent body to take responsibility for implementing the code and handling complaints, which would require amendment of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act. Finally, as in comparable parliaments, training in office management and harassment prevention must be mandatory.

Those working in parliaments need the same rights as employees in other workplaces. Those employing staffers need to be accountable for their behaviour. Parliaments need to model good behaviour, not bad, if they are to earn respect. Above all, now that women are present in sizeable numbers as both parliamentarians and staffers, they need to be given an equal opportunity to perform well without the career-limiting constraints imposed by bullying and harassment. Let us hope this is parliament’s #MeToo moment. •