Thursday, 25 March 2021
Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
The Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill supports the independent review into the workplaces of parliamentarians and their staff that is led by Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Kate Jenkins. The government announced this review on 5 March 2021. Its aim 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 assault. The review must bring about cultural and practical change in our parliamentary workplace.
It is of paramount importance that parliamentarians and staff both current and former can freely participate and have their say. This bill will strengthen the confidentiality of information provided to or created by the independent review. It does this in two ways. Firstly, it will exclude a right of access under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to all documents provided to or created by the independent review. Secondly, it will provide that these records not come into the open access period under the Archives Act 1983 until 99 years after the year the record comes into existence. These proposed amendments would not prevent the independent review from publishing such information as it considers appropriate. The amendments are intended to encourage individuals to come forward to the independent review and give information that is relevant to its terms of reference. This information could include accounts of a deeply personal and sensitive nature as well as allegations about the conduct of other people.
The bill supports the objectives of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's review. In particular, it will support the review in understanding the experiences and expectations of current and former parliamentarians and staff as well as other staff working within the Parliament of Australia. I thank members for their contribution to this debate and I look forward to hearing their contributions. I commend the bill.
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.
I rise to support the Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. These amendments will ensure that the review conducted by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, is effective and not hampered by the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised by staff and former staff, victims and survivors.
I wrote to the Prime Minister last Tuesday calling for this legislation. He wrote back to me at the time saying he was supportive of that and requesting that we put forward this legislation, pledging government support. As it is, some procedural changes have altered that but with the same outcome. It's an outcome that we've been after here. I'm very pleased that this legislation will be supported by government members, opposition members and crossbench members. That is a good thing indeed.
Our staff and members of parliament have made it plain from the outset that they welcome the Jenkins review. Indeed, Labor called for this review in a joint media release from myself as Labor leader and Tanya Plibersek as the shadow minister for the status of women on 16 February in response to the reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins in the office of the Minister for Defence in 2019 and other issues. This review is an important opportunity to bring about the cultural change that is needed, to get the resources and protections needed, to transform the parliament into a safe workplace. This should be a safe workplace for everyone who works here. As a Labor parliamentarian I say that Labor have a particular special duty to our staff, but I think every member of parliament has a duty to ensure their staff are properly protected.
This review must listen to those who come forward. They should be able to come forward in the confidence that any statements or submissions they make will be confidential, and that they won't be put in a difficult position in a year's time or 10 years time or 20 years time or 30 years time. That is what this legislation is aimed at. The fact is every workplace in Australia should be safe—every recreational venue, every home. We know, thanks to the courage of people like Brittany Higgins and the thousands of women and men who marched last week, that this workplace isn't the safe workplace it should be.