Brittany Higgins urges ‘immediate action’ after damning Parliament sex report

Brittany Higgins at the Women's March for Justice in Canberra.

Brittany Higgins at the Women's March for Justice in Canberra.

Former Liberal staffer and sexual assault advocate Brittany Higgins has called for “immediate action” on misconduct in Parliament, after a landmark Human Rights Commission report.

The report, handed down on Tuesday, recommended the government make changes Ms Higgins suggested months ago to protect women.

But the Coalition government and Labor Opposition have both stopped short of agreeing to all the recommendations of Kate Jenkins’ report on standards in Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, with Scott Morrison saying he would take time to consider a response.

“I want to keep people around the table on this. I want to ensure that we engage with each other in good faith,” the Prime Minister said.

Half of political staff report assault, harassment

Ms Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, handed down her awaited report into CPWs on Tuesday.

The Set The Standard report, prompted by sexual assault and misconduct allegations made by Ms Higgins and other women in politics, found an environment of sexism and “chauvinism” in the halls of power.

Of 1700 people working across Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces, including Canberra’s Parliament House, who responded to the investigation, 51 per cent said they had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. Photo: AAP

Women working in politics recounted stories that included being sexually assaulted, kissed and touched against their will, ogled and belittled at work.

Nearly two-thirds of female politicians reported being sexually harassed, while 26 per cent of staff who’d been harassed claimed that harassment came at the hands of an MP.

In a statement via the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University, Ms Higgins said she hoped the Jenkins report “inspired immediate action”.

“I want to thank the many brave people who shared their stories which contributed to this review. I hope all sides of politics not only commit to but implement these recommendations in full,” Ms Higgins said.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard said the report proved “it’s time to change our federal Parliament forever”.

In announcing the findings of the report, Mr Morrison told a press conference the “first step” in the response would be for Finance Minister Simon Birmingham to consult with other parties inside Parliament, seeking a joint response across the Parliament.

The PM said his department would “provide every necessary resource” to bolster the “multi-party approach”.

“We all share in the ownership of the problems that are set out in this report. But we all share in implementing the solutions as well. And we each have a role to play regardless of what role you have,” Mr Morrison said.

Recommendations to be considered

Ms Jenkins’ report sets out 28 recommendations, including overhauling procedures in the parliamentary chambers to eliminate sexist and discriminatory language and behaviour among politicians, and developing strict codes of conduct for parliamentarians.

Other recommendations include setting stronger targets for diversity among staff and politicians, expanding support and complaint services for staff, and creating an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission.

Mr Morrison with the Jenkins report. Photo: AAP

Mr Morrison said the government “did not wait to receive this report to take action”, noting numerous recent updates including a 24/7 phone support line and a new complaints mechanism.

One of the most important recommendations in the Jenkins report, however, is a call for reforming the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, which allows for political staff to be fired for a wide variety of reasons.

Numerous political staff have raised those conditions as a barrier to them speaking up about misconduct issues, for fear of being punished for making claims about colleagues.

Anonymous accounts in the report claim that staff were worried about making a complaint that would reflect badly on their boss or their political party.

Updating the MOP(S) Act was recommended by Ms Higgins directly to Mr Morrison at a meeting in April.

At the time, she claimed he told her “it’s your right to ask, it’s my right to consider”.

During his press conference, Mr Morrison and Minister for Women, Marise Payne, praised Ms Higgins.

The PM spoke of “her courage in speaking up” and said “her voice has been listened to … her voice has spoken for many”.

Senator Payne. Photo: AAP

But Mr Morrison denied he dismissed Ms Higgins at their meeting, considering that Ms Jenkins had now made similar recommendations, and said he backed reform of the MOP(S) Act.

“These matters were being considered by Commissioner Jenkins in this very report, and Commissioner Jenkins has made recommendations in relation to that. We look forward to now making our response,” he said.

“I think the recommendations cover all the right territory.”

Multi-party approach ‘next step’

Speaking to the ABC, Senator Birmingham said it was the “government’s desire to positively progress these recommendations” but did not commit to fully implementing them all.

In a statement, Labor politicians said they too would “carefully consider” the recommendations, but also stopped short of calling to implement them all.

“We are committed to working across the Parliament to improve working conditions for staff, parliamentarians, and other building occupants, and changing the culture of the parliamentary workplace,” read a statement from Don Farrell, Tanya Plibersek and Katy Gallagher, Labor’s shadow ministers for state, women and public service.

“Most importantly – we will consult with our staff on our response. This is their workplace, and they deserve nothing less than a safe, respectful, and supportive environment.”

But the Greens have called for swifter action.

Party spokesperson for women, Larissa Waters, said the government should “fully implement the recommendations”.

“The Greens have long called for a code of conduct for all parliamentarians, mandatory harassment training and more diverse representation in Parliament, and we’re happy to see that these are key recommendations of the Jenkins report,” she said.

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