Thursday, 25 March 2021
Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
We know that concerns have been raised across the parliament. We know that these issues are issues outside the parliament in our entire society. We need to ensure, in terms of this debate, that this workplace is seen as best practice, not as it has been seen in the past couple of weeks.
As set out in the terms of reference:
The aim of the Review is to ensure 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.
That's why it is vital that as many current and former staff as possible are able to participate.
There have been brave women who have chosen to tell their stories to drive change and I acknowledge that bravery. We have heard though from many staff directly and through their unions, or through voluntary supporters and advocates, that some do not feel safe to come forward unless they have these guarantees of confidentiality and privacy beyond those provided by the ordinary processes of the Human Rights Commission. Concerns have been raised by staff and former staff from all parties that as the Human Rights Commission is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the Archives Act there is currently, without this legislation, no guarantee that information submitted to the review will remain private. That's why this legislation is so important and that's why I wrote to the Prime Minister last Tuesday. More recently, a bipartisan group of current and former federal parliamentary staff members and their supporters wrote to the Prime Minister and to myself expressing those same concerns. The bill is the product of negotiations across this parliament and it delivers the protection that staff deserve.
Can I say, in terms of outcomes, one of the things I've said publicly, and I say it here as well, is that where there have been issues we have successfully set-up independent organisations, such as IPEA to look at the entitlements for members of parliament and their offices, and that has been a success. We've established the Parliamentary Budget Office to bring integrity to commitments that are given during election campaigns.It seems to me that a model of an independent body, whereby people could safely go and make confidential submissions, a place where complaints could be made and dealt with in a confidential way, at arm's length from the current system—that clearly is compromised, because the MOP(S) Act means that often there are relationships related to the political process between members of parliament, ministers and their staff. That's just a fact. Therefore, I really hope, and I have confidence that in examining these matters Kate Jenkins will come up with proposals that do give more confidence and in future will ensure that people can have somewhere to go that is separate from the sorts of debates that we've had in recent days about, for example, what staff in the Prime Minister's office or other offices, as well as MPs, know.
I do want to pay tribute to our caucus chair, who's here, the member for Newcastle; the shadow minister, the member for Sydney; and others, particularly the women in our caucus, who have shown incredible leadership and have come forward and worked so hard on developing a framework for the Labor Party of an updated code of conduct, a sexual harassment policy, a bullying policy and a complaints process. That was unanimously adopted by the ALP national executive on 26 February. That process also could be looked at in terms of being a model. We'll continue to work on it. You never get these things right.
Essentially a lot of these issues arise from the power imbalance in society related to the fact that patriarchy exists in our society. We want to ensure that there's full equality. At the moment there's not. The party caucus I joined in 1996 was far less reflective of Australian society than the current one is. I look around at the people. Not only is gender important but religious background, ethnicity and First Nations people being represented in far greater numbers are as well.
We strongly support this bill. We'll support the amendment that will be moved. The Jenkins review offers a chance for generational cultural change. Let's not waste it.
I will make a few brief remarks because the Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 has been addressed at length in the Senate. This bill relates to the current inquiry by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner into the culture and the procedures that are in place in Parliament House to ensure that everyone has a safe workplace. That review is something the Greens welcome and have, in fact, been calling for for months. We're very pleased that over recent times others have added their voices to that call and now, finally, the Prime Minister has done it.
The legislation came about because a number of people expressed concerns and wanted to make sure that any submissions they made to that review remained confidential. That was a concern that the Greens listened to and so, sometime ago, our leader in the Senate, Senator Larissa Waters—she is also our spokesperson for women—raised this with the government and in other forums to make sure that that concern was addressed. In that respect the legislation does something important—it gives women in particular the confidence to come forward to this review. We certainly encourage them to do so.
Some additional concerns were raised about whether the drafting allows the government to do other things—not so much protect the privacy of the people who wanted to put information to the review but provide a shield for the government to hide other documents. In that respect concerns were raised, and we listened to those as well. I commend the member for Warringah for the amendment she will move, which the Greens will support here. Again, I want to place on record acknowledgement of the significant work done by Senator Larissa Waters, who has also been involved in discussions with the member for Warringah, the government and the opposition about this amendment.
Because we're reaching the end of the day on the last sitting day and it's important that this bill passes, I'll leave my comments there other than to say that this review is something that the Greens have been calling for for months and months. I'm very pleased it's happening. We urge everyone to participate in it. This parliament deserves to be a safe workplace, and one of the ways that we can make that happen is by having full participation in this review and implementing the recommendations that come out of it—hopefully, not after waiting a year but quickly. That's something the Greens will be committed to.
I have a few brief points on the Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. I want to reflect on the genesis of this important bill and the independent inquiry it supports.
As the past month unfolded, the crossbench and opposition called on the government to launch this particular inquiry. Of course, there are multiple inquiries on the books right now, including the unsatisfactory Gaetjens review, which is being held at arm's length from the PMO and has been paused indefinitely. It was obvious to me and to many others in this House from the outset that inquiries of this nature must be fully independent and conducted by someone with appropriate expertise. Kate Jenkins is that person, and I really welcome this review. Of course, it doesn't take a review to know the basics and the reasons for why we need this review. We certainly don't need to wait for this review; it is complete before we act and legislate—something that I was concerned to hear the Prime Minister suggest in question time yesterday.
What do we know already? We know that there's a toxic culture here in parliament. We know that there is no safe and independent place for MPs and their staff to go to with serious complaints in this place. We know that the government sat on Kate Jenkins' previous Respect@work report recommendations for over a year and we know that the government could have passed a bill I introduced last October to establish an independent parliamentary standards commissioner and a code of conduct. We know that the government could have passed the bill that the member for Warringah introduced last week to amend the sex discrimination laws so that they apply to all of us in this chamber. No other workplace in this country would take so long to act.
But this bill is about ensuring that victims can come safely to this inquiry. Their privacy must be protected at all costs and I think we all agree on that. I want to thank the member for Warringah for her tireless work this week to ensure that this bill has the appropriate confidentiality safeguards. Her amendments are really important, I support them and I commend this bill to the House.
It gives me great pleasure to rise this evening to speak on the Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. It's been an extraordinarily difficult few weeks in this House. I think that all of us here would share that view, and that the sooner the independent review of workplaces of parliamentarians and their staff gets underway the better.
But in all the conversations I've had with staff members in this building—Labor staff, mostly, given that I'm a Labor member—it was made abundantly clear from day one, even before this Jenkins review was announced, that we needed an independent and at-arm's-length review process and that nothing less would suffice. More importantly, staff had to be 100 per cent confident in the process of making a submission to the review that their privacy would be protected. They made very clear to me in all of the consultations I've had over many months now—and I was talking about these issues well before the review was announced—that they had zero trust in current reporting systems in this parliament.
It makes me incredibly sad that that's the case, that there's such a lack of confidence in the current systems and such a feeling of lack of protection. So it's absolutely vital that the Jenkins review provides assurances to staff, that they will have their privacy protected. That meant not being subject to freedom-of-information laws, as would ordinarily be the case at the Australian Human Rights Commission. It also meant amendments to the Archives Act to provide the kinds of protections that we've seen in royal commissions—certainly in royal commissions dealing with sensitive issues. This is now a gold standard, the 99-year suppression in the Archives Act. I welcome very much those changes.
There were concerns raised. It is a bizarre scenario that we would have to ask a government not to operate in bad faith but that is exactly what people were demanding—some assurances that there wouldn't be efforts made, for those people with existing complaints that predated this announcement of the review, by the government being sneaky and tricky and trying to bury what would have been otherwise discoverable documents and information in the process. I am not actually suggesting that that would have been on government's cards but, clearly, even having just that window of doubt in peoples' minds was enough to jeopardise this important independent review process. So being able to arrive at a place where we can provide that assurance to people that there will not be capacity to be dumping in documents, important evidence and information that would suddenly now be deemed non-discoverable for those people with existing complaints who understandably wish to pursue justice and seek redress. They should have absolutely every opportunity to do so.
It is critical that women in this place feel safe about coming to work. The Australian parliament, I have said this on many occasions now, must be a model employer. But it's not just Labor staff, Liberal staff, crossbench staff. We need to be providing safe workplaces for the cleaners who come into this building, for the men and women from nongovernment organisations who come to lobby for a better, fairer deal out of this place, all the contractors. Everybody should be guaranteed safety in this place. There are 5,000 people who work in this building and every one of them deserve to come to work every day feeling safe. If this review helps us get to that path—I agree with earlier comments—we should not be waiting 12 months for this review to be concluded in order to make changes.
I think the government need only pick up Ms Jenkins' earlier review, Respect@Work, and enact those 55 recommendations. We might be in a very different position today in 2021 had we insisted that the government enact those recommendations. I look forward to a great sense of urgency from this government in making sure that every one of those recommendations is enacted in full, adequately resourced and properly supported to do so.
I want to say thank you to the shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, for his extraordinary and ongoing commitment to ensuring that this process was going to be survivor-focused, that it would be a practice that would be trauma-informed. He had the full support of the member for Sydney, the shadow minister for women, and Senator Katy Gallagher and Senator Don Farrell from the other place, who were part of an important negotiating team with the government to ensure that our staff are afforded every protection they deserve and so rightfully have fought very hard to ensure that they are received.
It is an important process and it is worth this parliament backing in. Indeed, the only regret is it will have to wait for May to get passed. But I understand we have every assurance from government and all members of this party that these provisions, these protections, these tight assurances, will be applied retrospectively to 5 March, when the government announced the appointment of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins for this review.
So, I want to say to all members of staff, to all people who interact with this building as a workplace and indeed our other Commonwealth and electorate offices beyond, that I encourage you to participate in this review. This review is an important historical moment, I believe, but that requires that people are able to make forthright contributions, free of any suggestion that there would be any kind of punishment or retribution or that they would have their names leaked in any way, shape or form. I think these amendments go to addressing those concerns, and that's why I'm very pleased to speak tonight in support of them and commend the bill to the House. Thank you very much.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.