One in three parliamentary staffers say they have faced sexual harassment

The report by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has recommended greater gender parity and a new code of conduct for MPs and staff to change parliamentary workplace culture.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins at an International Women's Day Parliamentary Breakfast on February 25, 2021.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins at an International Women's Day Parliamentary Breakfast on February 25, 2021. Source: AAP

This article contains references to rape and sexual assault.

One in three people who work as parliamentary staffers have experienced sexual harassment, according to those that responded to an extensive independent report into the workplace culture at Parliament House.

The report conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins and released on Tuesday was commissioned in the aftermath of concerns raised by former political staffer Brittany Higgins.

The review is aimed at ensuring parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful, which according to Ms Jenkins is a standard it has failed to meet.

"As one of the country's most prominent workplaces, it should set the standard for others and be something that Australians look to with pride," she told reporters. 

Ms Jenkins's report laying bare the extent and depth of the problem inside the people's house.

"Parliament is inherently about power," she said.

"We heard that power imbalances and the misuse of power is one of the primary drivers of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault."

The report made a series of recommendations including calling for a statement to the parliament acknowledging the “bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces and a commitment to action and shared accountability”. 

It also recommends that all parties need to push for gender parity to change the workplace culture, the creation of a new code of conduct for MPs and their staff, and enforcement by an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission. 

The report's findings underpinned by concerns it is not a safe environment to work in because of systemic concerns around "gender inequality and exclusion and a lack of accountability." 

“Such experiences leave a trail of devastation for individuals and their teams and undermine the performance of our parliament to the nation’s detriment,” the report reads.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison fronted reporters in Canberra following the report's release, saying he was committed to acting on its recommendations.

"We all share in the ownership of problems set out in this report - but we all share in implementing the solutions," he said.

The findings of the report

The report investigated concerns of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations in parliamentary workplaces.

Current and former politicians and staffers were among 1,723 people, mostly women, who contributed to the review that involved nearly 500 interviews.

"Many people shared distressing experiences of bullying sexual harassment and sexual assault," Ms Jenkins said.

"They said these things could never be shared with anyone else." 

More than half (51 per cent) of all people surveyed in the review had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault.

This included women in these workplaces experiencing sexual harassment at a higher rate (40 per cent) compared with men (26 per cent).

Only 11 per cent or one in ten had reported their experience being sexually harassed.

Of the 40 per cent who did not make a complaint said they did so because they thought that things would not change or nothing would be done.

More female parliamentarians (63 per cent) had also experienced sexual harassment, compared with male parliamentarians (24 per cent).

Concerns over power dynamic

The report also identified 37 per cent of people currently working in parliamentary workplaces had experienced some form of bullying.

Women once again experienced bullying at a higher rate (42 per cent), compared with men (32 per cent).

The report indicated people who bullied or sexually harassed people in parliament's workplaces were predominantly in a more powerful position than the person experiencing the behaviour.

The review also heard "overwhelmingly" there are rarely any consequences as a result of making a complaint about bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault for the person responsible.

"Misconduct is often dealt with as a political problem rather than a people issue," Ms Jenkins said.

"As a result we heard that people are often punished for reporting misconduct while others are protected, rewarded or even promoted." 

The report also found marginalised groups had experienced "greater vulnerability to misconduct" as well as specific experiences of "discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault."

Some participants told the commission that their identity as a First Nations person, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) person, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) person or person with a disability, had resulted in them being excluded or seen only through the lens of their identity.

This included people who identify as LGBTIQ+ experiencing sexual harassment at a higher rate (53 per cent) than people who identify as heterosexual (31 per cent).

Mr Morrison said the "power imbalance, gender imbalance [and] lack of accountability for behaviour" identified within parliament's workplace culture were unacceptable.

"I want to stress that just because this is a challenging and demanding environment ... this is no excuse whatsoever to normalise inappropriate, unhealthy and unprofessional behaviour," he said.

Unclear and inconsistent standards

The commission heard that expected standards of behaviour either did not exist in parliamentary workplaces or were "unclear and inconsistently enforced".

"This leads to confusion about the standards that apply and to misconduct being tolerated," the report said.

Many respondents shared how leaders themselves were responsible for "bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault" and also responded inadequately to the misconduct of others.

The effect of a so-called "culture of fear" was also raised repeatedly, especially on job security and of the "weaponisation" of information.

"The insecurity of employment has a chilling effect on people speaking up about bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault," the report said. 

The report also noted in some situations, unsafe drinking and blurred professional boundaries fostered environments where sexual harassment or sexual assault could occur.

Mr Morrison said he had requested Finance Minister Simon Birmingham and Special Minister of State Ben Morton consult with other parties about progressing a response to the review. 

He pointed to the federal government's implementation of an independent complaints mechanism as well as a 24-hour parliamentary workplace support service and workplace training as evidence of action already taken.

Mr Morrison also thanked Ms Higgins, whose alleged rape in parliament was a catalyst for the review.

"I do thank her for standing up and speaking up," he said.

"Her voice has been listened to."

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit . In an emergency, call 000.

6 min read
Published 30 November 2021 at 1:39pm
By Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News