Clerk's review

It is useful to begin these reviews with an outline of what we do. The Department of the Senate provides the secretariat for the Senate and for dozens of parliamentary committees. We facilitate their work, report their outcomes, and explain what they do and why. We give senators and others the advice and support they need to shape and participate in those meetings. That advice might be administrative, procedural or constitutional. Support can be practical or logistical; can involve research, analysis or drafting. But it’s all directed to enabling, explaining and illuminating the role and work of the parliament and its committees. One step away from this, our corporate and executive functions are directed to maintaining our capability to provide this advice and support. This involves recruiting well, prioritising the learning and development of our people, and maintaining our institutional knowledge.

Against this backdrop, the work and workload of the Senate department are ever determined by factors beyond our control, notably by the decisions senators make – individually and collectively – in proceedings of the Senate and its committees. In our Corporate Plans we explain that connection, highlighting how the composition of the Senate and its political dynamic, including the advent of a persistently large and diverse crossbench, affect what we do and how we do it.

Over recent parliaments this has been particularly evident in the need to support elevated levels of parliamentary committee activity and to meet the procedural and legislative requirements of a greater number of parties in the parliament. Beyond those enduring factors and trends, the two things that most affected our work over the past year were the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2022 federal election.

Governments at all levels are unwinding the last mandatory public health measures associated with the pandemic, other than those applying to high-risk health and aged care environments. It is a far cry from where we found ourselves at the beginning of the reporting year.

Last year’s review reported on the numerous ways our work had to change to ensure that the Senate and parliamentary committees could maintain their operations during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. These included finding new ways of connecting and collaborating with staff working from home; physical and procedural changes in the Senate and committee rooms; enabling ‘remote participation’ in the Senate; videoconferences and hybrid hearings as the new committee norm; and innovative approaches to parliamentary education to teach dispersed classes online. I said that our capacity to maintain the work of the parliament in those circumstances demonstrated the resilience and flexibility of the department and its people. We placed further reliance on those qualities in managing the vicissitudes of the pandemic through its second year.

In July 2021 we put in place arrangements for staff to work from home, where practical, throughout the August sittings. This enabled us to reduce our numbers in the building to around a quarter of our staff, while still providing our usual support for the sittings. We also saw for the first time committee hearings managed completely remotely, or with only one or two staff in the room; quite the accomplishment.

Such arrangements were overtaken in mid-August 2021 by the stricter requirements of the ACT’s public health orders, including a lockdown after the onset of the ‘delta wave’ of cases. In preparing for the Senate’s first sittings under the local lockdown and following discussions with relevant health authorities, we found ways to further reduce our footprint in Parliament House – rejigging rosters, shifting more procedural support offsite – and to further mitigate risks for staff onsite. This set the pattern for sittings and estimates hearings over subsequent months.

These requirements compounded the difficulty in our work, particularly by disrupting the instinctive, collaborative way our teams operate. We viewed working from home under lockdown conditions as a very different thing than working from home as a choice. Additional pressures came from schools being closed, adding the need for many staff to support remote learning. They also came from having multiple people working and learning from home, competing for space, equipment and bandwidth. We were quick to acknowledge that staff could not expect to be as productive as usual in those circumstances and to adjust expectations accordingly.

At the same time, only about half of the Senate was physically present for sittings but – unlike the early days of the pandemic – it was a Senate undertaking a full program of work, with an increasingly large slate of committee inquiries underway. The need to incorporate additional COVID-safe measures and to plan for contingencies on contingencies, particularly in relation to public committee meetings, also added to the administrative burden. I should add that this was not a ‘set and forget’ arrangement. The public health advice and settings for the operation of Parliament House were different for almost every sitting period and every round of estimates hearings, requiring constant adjustment throughout the year.

The extended lockdown ran through a peak period of activity for many staff, in obvious areas like sittings and committee inquiries but also for corporate staff wrapping up audits and annual reports, as well as for staff supporting projects that could only be progressed when the Senate wasn’t sitting. At the same time, the Parliamentary Education Office had to further expand and adapt its online outreach programs, with educators delivering parliamentary role-play experiences by videoconference from home.

It remains astonishing to me that our programs and our support for the Senate, committees and senators was virtually seamless, despite the innumerable challenges. I have regularly expressed my admiration of their efforts to the department’s staff but this report gives me the opportunity to do so publicly.

We took the opportunity of the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) employee census to ask our staff how we did in managing the pandemic. In extremely gratifying results, 95% of staff agreed that we have managed the challenges of the pandemic appropriately, while 94% agreed the department has supported their mental and physical health and well-being effectively during the pandemic.

Overall our results were overwhelmingly positive, comparing favourably to the APS average and to other small and specialist agencies. This was consistent with the results seen in the previous two surveys. The APSC will publish the results alongside the annual State of the Service report in November 2022.

To highlight some strengths, ‘job satisfaction’ received a positive response score of 91%, 17% higher than the APS average, while ‘workgroup skill, knowledge and the capability to perform well’ received a positive response score of 97%, 18% higher than the APS. More broadly, 97% of respondents agreed that they ‘believe strongly in the purpose and objectives’ of the department and 94% agreed they would recommend the department as a good place to work. The census was run in May and June this year and highlights staff satisfaction with the department’s leadership and our approach to health and wellbeing. Areas requiring additional focus include our approach to managing change and encouraging innovation. The results continue to reflect a high performing, engaged and motivated workforce, with great clarity about their duties and responsibilities. As I have said before, this provides a counter to the narrative of a singular ‘toxic culture’ at Parliament House.

This is gratifying while, across the parliamentary community, we work toward the objectives of Set the standard, the report of the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces. As I mentioned last year, the department and its staff contributed to the review in several ways. Staff undertook surveys and participated in roundtable discussions; some may also have provided submissions and participated in interviews. The four parliamentary departments made a joint submission, while I made a submission on behalf of the department and participated in an interview with Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

The report was tabled at the end of November 2021. Its recommendations seek to prevent and respond to bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault by moving the political culture toward equality, safety and respect. The department supports these aims: they have been central to our engagement with staff on health and wellbeing for many years. We welcome the opportunity to work toward a safer and more respectful environment for our staff and those they interact with.

In December 2021, the heads of the four parliamentary departments had a briefing with Commissioner Jenkins, to discuss what the review heard and the rationale underpinning its framework for action. We were told that the issues affecting staff in the parliamentary departments are very different than those affecting staff in political offices. The drivers and risk factors for misconduct identified in the report particularly affect parliamentarians and their staff. This includes factors like power imbalances, unclear and inconsistent standards of behaviour, precarious employment and inadequate human resources systems.

The greatest risks for our staff are found in our proximity to that ecosystem. This aligns with our recent experience. We have sound employment practices, underpinned by appropriate legislation; a legislated code of conduct; policies for dealing with misconduct that are tailored to our work. These enable us to set behavioural expectations and deal with inappropriate conduct when it arises between employees. In this regard we have similar issues to other public sector agencies, and deal with them in similar ways. But there are gaps in our policies and practices when it comes to the conduct of parliamentarians and their staff, and these gaps are clearly of concern to our staff given their work environment. As I noted in my submission to the review, our policies acknowledge senators and their staff as a potential source of misconduct, but our staff had told us they wanted more detail here: more detail about processes and more transparency about their use.

In the summary to my submission I said:

We have particular interest in the development and implementation of independent mechanisms for complaints against senators and their staff, whether these are designed to be accessible to Parliamentary Service employees or can serve as a model that the department could adopt in appropriate circumstances. Moreover, the department and staff will be interested in recommendations concerning codes of conduct for parliamentarians and their staff, as a contribution to a more positive and respectful workplace.

I’m glad that the report made comprehensive recommendations on both of those matters. Its recommendations also range across measures to:

  • advance gender equality, diversity and inclusion across the parliament
  • create new services to advise on parliamentarian staffing and culture, and to underpin safety, health and wellbeing in Parliament House and elsewhere
  • professionalise management practices for parliamentarians’ staff and review the legislation under which they are employed to reflect modern employment frameworks
  • review other elements of the parliamentary landscape, including parliamentary procedures, to promote inclusion and improve safety and respect.

A leadership taskforce, comprising eight members and senators drawn from around the Parliament and an independent chair, has been established to drive implementation of the recommendations. We are engaging with the work of the taskforce through several working groups and leaders forums. This work also allows us to test whether important elements of our workplace arrangements, including health and safety practices, and diversity and inclusion policies, can be refined or enhanced through further collaboration between the parliamentary departments. While for the most part the recommendations are not directed to the parliamentary service, our commitment to assisting in their implementation recognises the value of improving the parliamentary environment for our staff and for those they work with.

I mentioned the election as an influential factor in our work during the year. In each parliamentary cycle, we expect there will be a lull in legislative and committee activity associated with each election period. Planning for this can be slightly complicated by uncertainty about the precise timing of the election. With this in mind, it is worth examining indicators of such activity, as a proxy for the demand for our services during the year.

For the most part, committee activity continued apace right up to the election, with a peak in activity in the last weeks of the 46th Parliament. The department is resourced to support an array of Senate standing committees and joint standing or statutory committees. On top of this, it has been common for the Senate or the Houses together to establish a small number of select committees; committees appointed for particular tasks, but outside of the established committee system. The department has generally been able to absorb the costs of supporting three or four additional committees by absorbing their work into the secretariats of standing committees. However, this approach is not possible when large numbers of select committees run concurrently. The 46th Parliament saw record numbers of select and joint select committees established, some with ambitious programs of work requiring significant additional resources.

In 2021-22, Committee Office staff supported 30 distinct committees, including seven Senate select committees and two joint select committees. They processed more than 5000 submissions, arranged 222 public hearings and 340 private meetings, and drafted nearly 200 reports; more than in any of the previous 4 years. Staff in the Procedure Office supported the Parliament’s three legislative scrutiny committees, assisting their examination of more than 160 bills and around 1500 items of delegated legislation, and drafting a further 33 reports.

These are extraordinary statistics, reflecting continued high levels of demand for secretariat support. The annual performance statements beginning on p. 15 demonstrate that advice, documentation and draft reports consistently met committees’ requirements, while feedback from committee chairs and members show high levels of satisfaction throughout. The fact that secretariat staff managed more committees and produced more reports during this election year than the previous election year – despite having to do so against the challenges of managing through the pandemic – makes these results all the more impressive.

The department has secured supplementary funding in recent years to meet the additional demand for committee support, but has not been able to secure it on an ongoing basis. When the additional funding was secured for 2021–22, it was speculated that the demand for committee support might decline in the 47th Parliament, so that ongoing funding might not be required. We will monitor the level of demand, and particularly the number of additional committees appointed, during the first months of the new parliament to determine whether additional funds are needed to enable us to maintain the delivery and quality of these services.

By contrast, the election year contained a particularly low number of sittings. Only 33 sitting days were scheduled, reflecting the government’s decisions around timing for the Budget and the election. This was 4 days fewer than the previous election year, and the smallest number of sitting days in several decades. This led to a reduction in demand for procedural support, with the usual daily number of procedural scripts and chamber documents produced, but for fewer days. On the other hand, demand for legislative drafting remained around the usual levels, but concentrated it into fewer sitting weeks, and the department processed and archived the usual number of tabled documents over the year. Similarly, statistics on numbers of written advices were consistent with recent trends.

The election period brought with it its usual round of tasks associated with wrapping up one parliament and preparing for the next. There are many additional challenges associated with a change in government, including logistical challenges in relocating senators’ offices to and from the Ministerial Wing and training requirements for senators and staff moving into new roles. Our case study this year charts some of that work, with a focus on the preparation for the opening of the new parliament. Although the opening did not occur until July 2022, much of this activity took place during the reporting period. The department also used that time to finalise a number of ICT projects and progress others (the list can be seen in the performance report for the Senate Public Information Office), undertake a range of learning and development activities, and provide a program of health and wellbeing activities for staff following the template of the successful program run in the previous election period.

The Parliament is a complex institution, with many moving parts. We work particularly closely with our colleagues across the Parliamentary Service, and I thank my counterparts across the service and their staff at all levels for their cooperative engagement throughout the year.

In some ways the year ahead is predictable. The first year of a new parliament will see legislative and committee activity quickly ramp up, setting the pace for the following years. At the same time, the pandemic remains deadly and unpredictable, and will continue to disrupt how we live and work. No doubt we will lean on the lessons of the past few years to meet those challenges. We also recognise that we have entered a challenging employment market. As noted in our Corporate Plan for the coming year, we expect to see greater competition for the high-performing staff we seek to recruit and higher levels of attrition. Those factors will demand a continued focus on ensuring the department is a rewarding and inclusive workplace, as well as on the induction, training and development of our team.

I will finish with on a familiar note. Our ability to provide the specialist advice and support required by the Senate, its committees and senators rests on our people. To maintain our capabilities we look to recruit well and support the development and well-being of our staff. Their expertise and engagement is our greatest resource.