Senate debates

Thursday, 10 February 2022


Parliamentary Workplace Reform (Set the Standard Measures No. 1) Bill 2022; Second Reading

12:20 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Parliamentary Workplace Reform (Set the Standard Measures No. 1) Bill 2022. The Greens will be supporting this bill as it is a tiny step in the right direction by implementing two recommendations of the Set the standard report. There's still so much more to do, but this is a start.

These amendments will prevent staff from being arbitrarily fired for no reason other than that they've become a political problem for their employer. We know the sweeping powers for parliamentarians to fire staff have caused significant barriers for staff coming forward, fearing that their job, not the job of their abuser or harasser, would be at risk. We know that the change made by this bill alone will not change the culture of shaming and silencing that stops staff coming forward. That cultural shift requires full implementation of the Set the standard recommendations—a robust, independent and well resourced complaint process; trauma informed training for parliamentarians and senior staff; a code of conduct with meaningful options to sanction abusers and those who facilitate or ignore abuse; and genuine work for a more inclusive and representative parliament and parliamentary workforce.

The bill makes clear that all parliamentarians have obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act to provide a safe workplace. We welcome that, but the Respect@Work report couldn't have been clearer that these obligations are not enough to protect staff against harassment, bullying and assault. What is needed in this workplace—and in all others around the country—is a positive duty on employers to ensure that staff are safe, where there's a zero tolerance policy in action, not just words, and where appropriate support is available. A positive duty was the foundation of the Respect@Work recommendations for making workplaces safe, and without that duty all other reforms are built on very shaky ground. The government voted against amendments moved by myself and Senator McAllister last year to introduce a positive duty, and despite vague assurances that they're working on it we're yet to see progress on it, and I have no confidence that Australian workers will also get protection from the government before the election. We will continue to push for a positive duty so that every worker in every workplace can feel and be safe and respected.

The final thing that this bill does is to ensure the MOP(S) Act staff are covered by the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. This is an important reminder that the abuse detailed in the Set the standard report was extensive. The attention has been on sexual harassment and assault, but we must not ignore the reports of racism, ablism, ageism and classism in this case. People of colour, people with disability and older women have all reported that their harassment was compounded by discrimination and that they were targeted more, believed and supported less and too often driven from this workplace. I cannot look around the room and pretend that we don't have a representation problem.

We know the faces of Rachelle Milla, Chelsey Potter, Brittany Higgins, Josie Coles, Saxon Mullins, Chanel Contos and Grace Tame; we know these courageous women not because they're the only ones who have been abused, not because they're the only ones who've come forward but because they look most like the people that we know, that we can identify with. This does not diminish in any way the significance of their experience or the importance of them coming forward. The fact that these women came forward is a key reason that we're even having this discussion today. But, as each of these women has themselves acknowledged, as Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame said in their phenomenal address yesterday, as Amy Remeikis has said so eloquently so many times, 'So many survivors are missing from the public conversation because they don't look like me.' This has to change.

Today I want to share a story that should remind us all why this legislation and immediate action to implement the recommendations of Set the standard in full are needed A New South Wales parliamentary staffer assaulted his colleague, Dhanya Mani, in 2015. The assault happened after many months of harassment, which she'd reported to her supervisors. She had been repeatedly told that she was overreacting, that he just had a bit of a crush, and that maybe she should just go out with him. Then he violently assaulted her. For reasons familiar to so many survivors, particularly women of colour, she didn't make a police report, fearing she would not be believed, that her name would be made public, that it would affect her job and reputation, that only she would suffer the consequences and that the justice system would not deliver her justice. Instead she made complaints through her work and her political party. She was largely ignored, placated and passed on. Meanwhile, her abuser continued to work in a senior role in the party.

Dhanya Mani and Chelsey Potter told their stories to the media in July 2019. They founded a non-partisan movement for survivors called 'Changing our Headline', which was later renamed 'Kate's List' in honour of the woman who alleges Christian Porter raped her. Through that movement, they heard story after story from women working in state and federal politics about abuse and harassment and the lack of support when they reported that abuse. In 2019, Dhanya phoned the Prime Minister's office. She explained that, through Kate's List, she had received many complaints from women in federal parliament, including in the Liberal Party, who had been harassed and abused. Each of those women had confided in a senior person with power to resolve their complaint or they had followed formal complaint mechanisms. None of the women felt that they had really been heard or that there had been consequences for their abusers.

Dhanya contacted the Prime Minister seeking two things. Firstly, she sought support to elevate a resolution of her own complaints, after they had stalled in the New South Wales Liberal Party and the New South Wales Premier's office. Secondly, she sought a meeting to discuss the complaints from women working in the federal Liberal Party and what the PM and the party could do to avoid any other staffers suffering as Dhanya, Chelsey and all those who'd shared their stories had suffered. She was raising concerns on behalf of current and former political staff from all major political parties in Australia. She was reaching out to the Prime Minister and trying to offer constructive advice about how to lift the standards within his own party. She was sharing her own trauma to help prevent others from having to experience it.

The response was telling. The Prime Minister's private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, contacted her and suggested it was not a matter for the Prime Minister. He maintained that the existing processes were working well. He refused to facilitate a meeting with the Prime Minister, instead suggesting that she write his office a letter. He obfuscated. He declined to provide an email address. He said that he would call back the next day. She never heard back. Dhanya spoke with 7.30 in late February 2021 about her experience in trying to raise issues with the Prime Minister's office. The PMO denied that Dhanya had mentioned complaints in federal parliament to Mr Finkelstein. I have listened to a recording of that conversation, and I heard Dhanya repeatedly and categorically talk about these complaints and her hope to meet with the Prime Minister to discuss them.

This is more of the 'don't ask, don't tell' approach that we've heard so much of in this parliament: 'Pretend it isn't happening, gaslight and belittle those who come forward and background against them if you have to.' That wilful disregard for survivors is why a toxic culture has persisted in this place for so long. They all knew it was happening. They just didn't care enough to make it stop. Dhanya wrote to the Prime Minister in February 2021, in the week following Brittany Higgins bravely coming forward. She wrote to again seek a meeting to discuss complaints that she'd received and recommendations for reform. She didn't hear back.

Dhanya wrote again to the Prime Minister in April 2021. She said in her letter: 'I detailed to you my own personal experiences of sexual misconduct. I explained the steps I took to seek justice and assistance. I explained that I had approached your senior aid Yaron Finkelstein for help. I summarised two years of research, advocacy and work on behalf of survivors of sexual crime, harassment, abuse, bullying and other serious misconduct in parliament and in Australia's workplaces more broadly. I took the time to write to you because I'm passionate about creating change and will never stop fighting for survivors. I requested a response from you. I have not received any acknowledgement from your office. This is unacceptable.' Dhanya didn't receive a response to that letter either. She was not invited to attend the statement of acknowledgment on Tuesday. Dhanya's experience is a stark reminder of the damage that a toxic, misogynistic culture that disregards harassment and abuse can cause. It shows how futile the efforts to bring concerns to those in power have been for so long. They knew. They didn't care.

Thankfully, we are now starting to see action. This is because of the strength of women like Dhanya Mani, Tessa Sullivan, Chelsey Potter, Rachelle Miller, Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and so many others, and it's despite the barriers that powerful men have tried to put in their way. Dhanya has asked for me to share a message with you about what she hopes you took away from her story today: 'Earlier this week, there was an apology delivered by Scott Morrison to survivors of sexual abuse in politics. He spoke about the power of apologies to create reform and change. That statement is true; it just does not apply to his offensive and whitewashed excuse for an apology. Scott Morrison not only failed to genuinely consult or consider survivors in the wording of his apology; he rewrote and whitewashed Australian feminist history in the process. Tessa Sullivan, a woman of colour, who was the first to tell her story of sexual violence in politics when the Me Too Movement began to gain ground in Australia in early 2018, inspired me to speak out. Yet many Australians fail to recognise we would not be here without her. I continued Tessa's work, launching my campaign Kate's List when I told my story. My campaign was, and remains, designed to support survivors and end sexual violence in Australian politics and workplaces. Yet women like myself and Tessa are largely erased from media commentary, culture and history. Even now, in 2022, after the lessons of Me Too, politicians and the mainstream media almost solely centre the stories of cisgender, able-bodied and conventionally attractive white women at the expense of all other voices. But this cultural moment of reckoning in Australian politics and feminism is built on the sacrifice, advocacy and unpaid labour of women of colour like me, like Tessa. We came first. Failing to acknowledge the labour of culturally and linguistically diverse women sends a message: sexual violence and other forms of abuse only impact white women. But we know that these crimes disproportionately impact CALD and First Nations women. In a country where colonisation is ongoing, we cannot allow this distorted and incomplete picture to form the sole foundation for the Australian public's understanding of male violence against women. If this parliament fails to act, it is tacitly endorsing and aggravating impenetrable barriers to equality for diverse, minority, identifying Australians. This country cannot achieve inclusive healthy progress for women in political life until and unless we start recognising and validating the vital work of women of colour and First Nations women in making opportunities for feminist cultural reckoning and reform possible. This speech is all for minority women, and women of colour, who do not feel seen in political life. I will keep fighting for us. I deserve to be seen. Tessa deserves to be seen. You deserve to be seen. This historic moment belongs to us, too. I will not stop until skin colour and minority status do not determine whether we are acknowledged, whether we are recognised by politicians in the media and whether cultural and historic milestones build on our advocacy and labour belong to us.' Those were the words of Dhanya Mani, which she wanted you all to hear. I'm honoured to be able to say them in this chamber, albeit belatedly, many years after her assault that was so mishandled by the political party that she belonged to.

Coming back to this bill: it is a step in the right direction but it is a tiny one. It finally does some of the things that Dhanya and others have been asking the government to do for years. The Greens will work to ensure that this parliament urgently takes the rest of the steps needed to turn things around properly and to make parliamentary workplaces—all workplaces—safe, equal, inclusive and respectful.

12:35 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor supports the Parliamentary Workplace Reform (Set the Standard Measures No. 1) Bill 2022, and I commend the bill to the Senate.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the opposition and the Greens and, I understand, all parties for their intention to support this and for the endorsement of this legislation. The Parliamentary Workplace Reform (Set the Standard Measures No. 1) Bill 2022 would make initial changes to four pieces of legislation in order to implement recommendations 17 and 24 of Set the standard: Report on the independent review into Commonwealth parliamentary workplacesthe Jenkins report. The bill will progress important and significant reforms to help ensure that Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces are workplaces where expected standards of behaviour are modelled, championed and enforced, where respectful behaviour is standard, and in which any Australian, no matter their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, disability or age, feels safe and welcome to contribute.

The bill would amend the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 to strengthen and clarify the employment rights of MOP(S) Act employees. The bill removes any doubt that the Fair Work Act 2009 applies to MOP(S) Act employees by making this explicit, and would require parliamentarians to provide written reasons where they dismiss an employee from employment. These amendments result in additional information being provided to employees who are being terminated, which will result in an update to current arrangements and forms around the termination of employees, consistent with the recommendations of Commissioner Jenkins. Grounds around dismissal continue to include—very clearly specified—the restructure of an office which calls for a different set of employee skills; unsatisfactory performance or conduct by the employee; where a parliamentarian has lost trust or confidence in an employee; and where the employee has a significant conflict of interest.

The bill would also amend the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 to clarify that parliamentarians are officers of the Commonwealth for the purposes of the Work Health and Safety Act. The bill would also amend the Age Discrimination Act 2004 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to put beyond doubt that MOP(S) Act employees have protection from age and disability discrimination, consistent with the recent amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act.

The government have on a number of occasions indicated our support for Kate Jenkins's recommendations. We have worked with the opposition, other parties and Independents, and I acknowledge the work in this chamber of Senator Waters, Senator Gallagher, Senator Farrell and Senator Payne as fellow members of the leadership task force along with those from the other place. The first meeting of the leadership task force, independently chaired by Ms Kerri Hartland, was held last week, and the task force will be integral to ensuring progress on all of the Jenkins report recommendations, noting that not all of them are solely for government to implement as, of course, a legislative change like this is. For the recommendations that are solely within the government's responsibility and control, our intention is they be implemented within the recommended time frames. Thus far, that is on track for all of those recommendations. We are conscious that the recommendations are complex, but they are also important, especially those such as establishing the office of parliamentary standards and culture.

This bill will provide additional protections to MOP(S) Act employees and a clear intent that not only the government but also the parliament, working together as we have demonstrated, are committed to implementing the recommendations of the Jenkins report. Significantly, the reforms and the legislative package would ensure Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful, and that the nation's parliament serves as a model workplace for our nation. They help to contribute to those objectives as they work in tandem with the other reforms that have been put in place and others that are still to come, as we seek to ensure the prevention of, and appropriate responses to, any instances of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.