Thursday, 25 March 2021
Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
On 5 March the government announced that it would appoint the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, to conduct an independent review into the workplaces of parliamentarians and their staff. There is a clear need for such a review, and it has Labor's full support. As set out in the terms of reference, the aim of the review is 'to ensure that all Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful, and that our national parliament reflects best practice in the prevention and handling of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assaults'.
If the review is to achieve its aim, it is absolutely critical that as many current and former staff as possible participate. Last week, a bipartisan group of current and former parliamentary staff members and their supporters wrote to the opposition leader and to the Prime Minister expressing their concern about the privacy and confidentiality of submissions made to the review. In particular, they expressed concern that, as the Human Rights Commission is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the Archives Act, there is currently no guarantee that information submitted to the review will remain private and confidential. Many staff had already raised these concerns with members of the Labor caucus directly. I know that everyone in this place agrees that current and former staff must have confidence that their privacy will be protected if they participate in this review. The review needs to be a safe place for everyone participating in it. This bill is intended to provide that safety, first, by amending the Freedom of Information Act so that submissions to the independent review and any documents created by the review are exempt from the operation of the act, and, second, by amending the Archives Act so that review documents will not be accessible by any member of the public for 99 years.
I acknowledge that a concern has been raised about the scope of these exemptions. In particular there is a concern that the exemption in the Freedom of Information Act could be exploited by government ministers and departments to deny victims and survivors of abuse or harassment access to materials relating to their own complaints. We understand that concern, and Labor has been engaging constructively with the government and members of the crossbench all week in a joint effort to address it, while also ensuring that anyone who wishes to participate in the review can have complete confidence that their privacy and their confidentiality will be protected. It was because of the constructive engagement by Labor, the government and members of the crossbench that the amendment that is going to be moved by the member for Warringah is now in a form that can and should be supported by everyone in this place.
The fact that the bill is going to be amended in the House today means that it cannot pass the parliament until May. While on one level that is regrettable, we note and take comfort in the welcome assurances that have been provided by the Australian Human Rights Commission about the protection of confidential information between now and the May sittings of the parliament. It is Labor's sincere hope that the passage of this bill will ensure that everyone who wishes to participate in the independent review will have the confidence to do so.