Booze in parliament: 'drinking culture' under microscope in major workplace review

Kate Jenkins (left) and Dr Katie Allen MP. Source: AAP

A review by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has taken aim at the drinking culture at Parliament House, joining a chorus of others calling for greater regulation.

This story contains references to sexual harassment and sexual assault.

A long-awaited report into the workplace environment at Parliament House has taken aim at the “drinking culture” within its walls, identifying it as a risk factor that needs to be better regulated in order to create a safer work environment.

The review conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins was released on Tuesday and launched in the wake of the alleged rape of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.

The comprehensive review found one in three parliamentary staffers had been sexually harassed at work, and more than half had experienced bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault at work.

Within the comprehensive review, booze in parliament gets a specific mention.

One of the 28 recommendations, which Kate Jenkins says should be made in conjunction with one another and not “cherry-picked,” asks for clearer guidelines on the expectations and standards around the use of alcohol in Parliament. The recommendation further suggests limiting the availability of alcohol for “harm minimisation”.

It comes after the report identified “significant alcohol use” and a “drinking culture” to be one of the risk factors that can contribute to the prevalence of workplace bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Current and former politicians and staffers were among 1723 people, mostly women, who contributed to the review that involved nearly 500 interviews.

 

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.
Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.
AAP

At many events, alcohol was free and unlimited, several answered. Other interviews noted that political staff and parliamentarians would drink in their offices – including when parliament was still sitting.

“No problem with people having a drink at the end of a workday, but (for us) the work hadn’t ended, ” said one anonymous interviewee in the report.

Another recalled a time when they were “drunk on free booze” in a parliamentarian’s office: “You’ve got this room of 20-year-olds with a 60-year-old man … plying them all with alcohol in an enclosed room, in a professional office building. It’s not a recipe for good professional behaviour. "

Notably, some epic political booze-ups have made their way into Australian popular culture.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott is said to have broken a marble coffee table in the prime ministerial suite during a wild night of drinking in 2015, after he lost a leadership spill to Malcolm Turnbull. 

And former prime minister Bob Hawke was also the famous possessor of the world record for skolling a yard of ale. A biography of John Howard, Australia's second-longest serving prime minister, revealed he admitted to once being “drunk at work”. 

This is not the first time the idea of regulating drinking within Parliament House has been raised.

In March, Liberal parliamentarians Dr Katie Allen MP and Senator Sarah Henderson raised the possibility of alcohol being restricted or banned at Parliament House.

Dr Allen said the recommendations on responsible drinking guidelines were very welcomed and are needed to improve the “overall professionalism” within Parliament House.

“Not only do we want but we need to make sure all employees are safe in the workplace and addressing alcohol is a large part of this,” Dr Allen said in a statement to The Feed.

“I especially want to see more women aspire to work in parliament. And fixing the culture and professionalising the workplace is the way to see this happen.”

Other recommendations include implementing a code of conduct for parliamentarians, staffers and other workers in Parliament House, a greater push for gender parity and setting up a new Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission within a year.

While the change will cause a shake-up to the culture in Canberra, Caterina Giorgi, the CEO of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education says it’s a valuable shift that is overdue.

“When you create an environment where alcohol is so readily available, where it's at every event, where you normalise drinking alcohol as part of your culture, as part of your day-to-day work, then this creates a culture that can absolutely lead to harm - and that's exactly what we're seeing," Ms Giorgi told The Feed

“No one should go to work and be bullied, no one should go to work and be harassed. No one should go to work and experience violence - and people should do everything that they can to try and prevent that.”

She says the type of proposed regulations around alcohol would merely mirror those in other workplaces across Australia and “just down the road” to Parliament House in other public service departments.

“It should require that events that involve alcohol have particular approval processes that encourage less use of alcohol or events that don't involve alcohol," said Ms Giorgi.

“[It] should certainly have this really clear distinction around alcohol not being involved in day-to-day business – which is just an expectation in other workplaces.

"It makes absolute sense that that would apply to the parliament of this country."

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

 

Source SBS News