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Morrison government to take action on Jenkins inquiry into toxic culture before parliament returns | Australian politics

The Morrison government is aiming to implement the first two recommendations of the landmark Jenkins review before parliament resumes in February, and amend legislation governing the employment of political staff before the election.

The finance minister Simon Birmingham revealed his implementation timetable during an interview with Guardian Australia’s politics podcast. He said immediate priorities were setting up a leadership taskforce to oversee the changes, and preparing a public statement acknowledging traumatic experiences of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in political offices ready to deliver after the summer break.

In November, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, recommended a significant overhaul of federal parliament’s toxic workplace culture after handing down her landmark report that found one in three staffers interviewed had been sexually harassed.

The Jenkins inquiry into parliament’s workplace culture was triggered after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped after hours in a ministerial office in March 2019. Higgins’ allegations are the subject of separate criminal proceedings.

The Jenkins review made 28 recommendations, and Thursday’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (Myefo) allocated $17.8m over four years to fund their implementation. Birmingham told Guardian Australia the government’s intention was to “take action” on all the proposals, beginning with the first two recommendations.

“My expectation is, we will, by the time we bring the parliament back next year, be in a position where the leadership taskforce [Jenkins] recommended is up and running, and the type of statement she’s recommended be made by the parliament is able to be delivered upon,” the finance minister said.

Birmingham said he also wanted to implement Jenkins’ proposed changes to the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act – which is the legislative instrument governing the employment arrangements of political staff.

“Our ambition will be to bring that specific legislation forward before an election, assuming parliament comes back before an election – we can get that done as quickly as possible,” he said.

Jenkins recommended political leaders deliver a public statement acknowledging “the impact of the misconduct on individuals and the lack of action taken in the past” and “outline the institutional leadership commitment to change, with shared accountability for progress”.

Damning report

A survey accompanying the review found toxic workplace experiences were common – 37% of respondents in parliamentary workplaces had personally experienced bullying and 33% of people had personally experienced sexual harassment, with 1% experiencing an actual or attempted sexual assault. It found 84% of people who experienced sexual harassment did not seek support or advice.

The review found gender inequality in the political ecosystem was a key driver of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault within commonwealth parliamentary workplaces. It found that power imbalances and the misuse of power, was “one of the primary drivers of misconduct”.

Jenkins’ second recommendation was the government establish a leadership taskforce, with oversight by the presiding officers, “chaired by an independent expert and supported by an implementation group” to ensure all the recommendations of the report were implemented.

The sex discrimination commissioner also recommended a comprehensive review of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, and legislative changes ensuring there were fair termination processes for employees.

As well as achieving those initial objectives, Birmingham said it would be crucial to institutionalise new training courses for parliamentarians and staff. The finance minister said the current educative and support services needed to be enhanced, and become “an embedded part of the induction process for new MPs and new offices established [post-election] so we don’t waste any time in terms of the life and culture of the next parliament”.

He said he wanted to move as quickly as possible to implement the overhaul, and would work with Labor, the Greens and crossbenchers to do what was possible before the election.

Birmingham said reform of the toxic workplace culture would need to be collaborative, “but everyone has said to me they want us to get on with it, and that was always our ambition”.

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins found one-third of parliament staff had experienced sexual harrassment.
Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins found one-third of parliament staff had experienced sexual harrassment. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

As part of structural reforms, Jenkins recommended the establishment of a new office of parliamentarian staffing and culture to provide centralised human resources support, including policy development, training, advice, support and education.

The review also recommended the creation of an independent parliamentary standards commission “to ensure that there are independent and consistent responses to reports and complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault” in parliamentary workplaces.

Birmingham said some of the structural changes would have to wait until after the election. “We are not going to waste any time though,” the minister said.

“Our intention is to meet with the opposition, the Greens, the independents and agree on the shape of that organisation[s] and where that sits within the parliamentary departments and architecture – how it needs to be legislated … have that ready for introduction as early … into the new parliament as possible.”

Former parliamentary staffers have urged the Morrison government and other political parties to quickly implement the recommendations, warning failure to implement change will trigger a fierce backlash from women at the ballot box.

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