Just two days after the then Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party Barnaby Joyce (finally) resigned citing a sexual harassment complaint filed against him as the final “straw that broke the camel’s back”, #MPToo is gathering pace in Canberra.
On Sunday, it was revealed that the Department of Finance, with whom political staffers working for Senators and MP’s have an official employment relationship, is reviewing its sexual harassment policy.
Deputy Leader of the Labor Party Tanya Plibersek revealed the changes at the Labor International Conference in Sydney, where she was speaking. According to Plibersek, the Department of Finance revisited the policy after Labor Senator Don Farrell wrote to Finance Minister Mathias Corman on February 5th asking the government to make sure policies protected political staff.
The request came after Women’s Agenda published an investigation late last year highlighting the policy was “incomprehensible” and failed to meet the minimum criteria set out in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s best practice guidelines.
Among the inadequacies Women’s Agenda highlighted: the policy did not specifically address sexual harassment as defined by the Sex Discrimination Act (which clearly defines sexual harassment as unwelcome contact of a sexual nature), it did not clearly spell out an employee’s options for pursing a sexual harassment claim, the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission and relevant time limits, and, perhaps of most concern, it stipulated that even if a complaint under the more generic harassment definition was substantiated, “Finance has no capacity to take disciplinary action against a Senator or Member”.
At the time, Women’s Agenda put these concerns to the DOF, asking if in light of #MeToo and recent events in Washington and Westminster they should be addressed. “Please be advised that the Department’s response, as previously provided, stands,” was the short response.
Women’s Agenda renewed its call to address these shortcoming again last week, urging the Prime Minister to look at the policy again following his announcement of the so-called “bonk-ban”, preventing Ministers from having sexual relationships with their staff.
At the press conference where he announced the ban (or in more official language changes to the Ministerial Code of Conduct), Turnbull expressed his concerns about the culture of Canberra and affirmed his commitment to creating a safe working environment for women.
Speaking at the Conference where she revealed the review of the DOF policy, Plibersek said, “Australians are right to expect that their Parliament should be a leader not a straggler when it comes to preventing sexual harassment.”
Plibersek also revealed that the Labor Party would be revisiting its own policies. “We need to look within our own party also – not just in the employment relationship between Parliamentarians and their staff,” she said.
“Anywhere there are big power imbalances – where there is the power to bestow privilege – we need to make sure there are proper protections in place,” Plibersek added. “That’s why I have also asked the ALP National Secretariat to work with all state and territory branches to review Labor’s existing policies to make sure that everyone we come into contact with is properly protected.”
The moves to improve the sexual harassment policies within the Government and the Labor Party came as anger grew over the weekend at the National Party’s handling of the complaint against Joyce.
On Saturday the complainant was revealed by the Weekend Australian against her wishes. Some have accused the National Party of leaking her identity, which they have denied.
Her supporters, including Pete Mailler, a cattle and grain producer who ran against Joyce in last year’s byelection, have expressed their concerns about the intentions behind the leak. “This sends a message to any others who may have been considering speaking up that they too will be named to face a withering barrage of abuse and condemnation from nationals faithful,” Mailler told the Guardian Australia.
As all this has unfolded, it seems the Department of Finance is at last a bit more prepared to be forthcoming about future plans for its sexual harassment policy, telling BuzzFeed News it was consulting with Members of Parliament Staff employees on a review of the policy to include further information on “recognising, preventing and addressing sexual harassment”.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica