In November 2021, the Australian Human Rights Commission released its report, Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces Summary Report 2021. This review, led by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, used various tools to gather data including interviews, focus groups, and surveys. The purpose of the Review was to make recommendations ensuring that 1) Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful; and 2) Parliament reflects best practice in prevention and response to bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault. Most participants were female, current/former staff members of parliamentarians, but unfortunately, the survey response rate was low, only 23% of those eligible provided data.
The review identified several drivers and risk factors for misconduct: power, gender inequality, absence of clear or consistent standards of conduct and behaviour, as well as poor leadership skills, a high pressure-high stakes with long and irregular work hours and settings, fear of causing trouble, and a lens that creates a protective and cloaking environment forcing unhealthy loyalty. Alcohol at work events, as well as a fragmented HR also contribute.
Most bullies are women (61%) and most sexual harassers are men (81%). Notably, bullying behaviour was often a pattern extending beyond one victim, rather than an isolated case. Reporting this misconduct was infrequent (32% bullying; 11% sexual harassment) and the most common reason for not reporting was believing that it would be futile – nothing would be done about it/nothing would change. This futile belief seemed to carry forward to a theme of hopelessness as most victims of bullying or sexual harassment did not bother to pursue advice or support. Additionally, there is a large training gap on these topics, especially for parliamentarians.
The Review made 28 recommendations (pp 40-45 of the report). These generally address matters of leadership responsibility and accountability, ethical standards, workplace training, improving the reporting and investigation of misconduct, improving diversity, and addressing workplace alcohol use.
The Review does not comment on the low response rate for this project (23%) and how that, itself, can be a potential indicator of parliamentary workplace problems. For example, the low response rate could also align with the futility and hopelessness identified in the participant data (i.e., an attitude of why bother to participate in the Review as it will not help/create change). It could also indicate that the project sponsor needed to do a better job of promoting the project so as to get a higher rate of participation (by increasing awareness of the project).
Other gaps pertain to the recommendations. For example, there is no specific recommendation that requires transparency in publishing an annual report of complaints/disclosures and investigations with findings and corrective action. With regard to diversity, they focus on gender and culture but omit matters of religious discrimination/bullying that can occur in the workplace. Also, with regard to creating a speak-up program, there is no mention of supports and protections to go with it (only the provision of anonymity).
While the Review is a good first step that begins to open the curtains and expose toxicity in parliamentary workplaces, it should be seen as a launchpad for even more workplace transparency, as well as a ripe time to add support and protections for all in that workplace, no matter their gender, age, religion, ethnicity, or job title. Additionally, the female bullying data should be further explored to determine root cause and meaningful corrective action as females here are both aggressors, targets, and marginalized in terms of diversity. A legalistic approach won’t solve the workplace toxicity problems in Parliament; however, a multidisciplinary approach that includes ethics training, a safe and trusted space for making disclosures, and robust and timely investigations with meaningful corrective action is the optimal way forward.