A damning report into bullying and harassment at Parliament has identified systemic problems in the workplace, with a high-intensity culture and unusual employment arrangements contributing to the bullying and harassment – including by alleged “serial offenders” whose identities are an open secret.

The review of the culture at Parliament has recommended the creation of a new code of conduct for those who work on the parliamentary precinct, as well as the establishment of an independent “commission for parliamentary conduct” to receive and investigate complaints about the behaviour of MPs.

Last November, Speaker Trevor Mallard appointed Debbie Francis to carry out an independent review into the culture at Parliament, following a number of high-profile bullying and harassment claims levelled against MPs and ministers.

In her report, Francis says unacceptable conduct is “too often tolerated or normalised”, with a number of barriers to making complaints and a lack of pastoral care for those who need help.

She highlights a “high-intensity culture” at Parliament, with MPs and their staff working long hours under constant scrutiny with little ability to “decompress” from their jobs.

Francis says there are almost no formalised leadership development programmes available to MPs, with a lack of best practice approaches for those who are learning on the job.

The “triangular” employment relationship with Parliamentary Service staff is raised as a concern, with the Service their legal employer but the bulk of their daily interaction and management coming from the MP they work for.

Francis also highlights issues with the fixed-term employment arrangements for parliamentary staff and the “breakdown clauses” often used to terminate employment without sufficient rigour. The clauses allow employment to be terminated if the relationship between an MP and staff member is claimed to have ‘broken down’.

A number of people who took part in the inquiry said there were major barriers to raising bullying or harassment, with fears they would be “branded”as disloyal or that the HR staff would not respect their confidentiality or take their concerns seriously.

‘Conspiracy of silence’ around serial offenders

While exemplary leadership is common, the report says there is a “known minority” of MPs who have been reported as engaging in inappropriate behaviour on a regular basis with a “conspiracy of silence” preventing their naming.

Over three-quarters of those interviewed as part of the review said they had experienced or observed “unreasonable or aggressive behaviour that intimidates or threatens”, while two-thirds had been subjected to or seen “demeaning language or gestures that belittled, ridiculed and/or was personally offensive” to them or another person at work.

Of over 1000 respondents to an online survey as part of the review, 14 said they had experienced sexual assault, 20 had received messages of a sexual nature, while more than 100 had been subjected to unwanted touching or sexual advances.

Francis said she had provided a number of respondents with the details of specialist sexual assault support providers and police sexual assault investigators.

Among her recommendations, Francis says a code of conduct for the parliamentary workplace is a “basic requirement”, while there should be more leadership training and support offered to MPs and managers.

She has also recommended the creation of an independent Commission for Parliamentary Conduct to look into complaints regarding the behaviour of MPs.

Mallard: Changes no quick fix

In a statement, Mallard said he was “committed to making changes to ensure the parliamentary workplace is free from harmful behaviour”.

“The issues in the report will not be a quick fix and any solutions will need to have input from those affected and address the systemic issues.”

Parliamentary Service general manager Rafael Gonzalez-Montero said he was “deeply disappointed by the systemic bullying and harassment within the parliamentary workplace highlighted in the report”, and was committed to addressing the issues that had been raised.

“Every single employee regardless of where they work is entitled to feel safe in their workplace,” Gonzalez-Montero said.

The Parliamentary Service, the Office of the Clerk and the Department of Internal Affair – who are together responsible for the vast majority of people who work at Parliament – said they would work together to make changes following the release of the report.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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