Parliamentary workplace reform

Dr Michael Sloane, Politics and Public Administration

Key issue

A series of bullying, harassment and sexual assault allegations in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces were made public during the 46th Parliament. This led the Government to commission both a short-term review of the available support services (the Foster Review) and a comprehensive independent review of parliamentary workplace culture and regulation (the Jenkins Review). Some of the reviews’ recommendations were implemented before the 46th Parliament concluded; however, several more complex and historically contested reforms remain to be considered. These include establishing a code of conduct for parliamentarians and an appropriate investigation and enforcement process for apparent breaches. 


Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces (CPW) are complex environments in which large numbers of people- working under a variety of employment arrangements, each with its own reporting and leadership structures- interact. The culture of these workplaces became the focus of significant public attention during the 46th Parliament following media reports of an alleged sexual assault of a ministerial staffer in Parliament House in March 2019. Subsequently, other allegations of mistreatment of members of parliament and political and parliamentary staff have emerged. In response, the Australian Government initiated multiple reviews and investigations, including the Foster and Jenkins reviews in February and March 2021, respectively.

While many of the Foster Review recommendations have been implemented, the more complex reforms recommended by the Jenkins Review have not yet been completed. The Jenkins Review envisages the implementation of recommendations occurring in several phases over 2 years. Implementing the full suite of recommendations in the life of the 47th Parliament will require action by parliamentarians, political parties, the Government and its departments, and parliamentary departments.

Similar accusations relating to bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault have also arisen in several state and territory parliaments, as well as in comparable overseas parliaments, including those of the UK, New Zealand and Canada. In these jurisdictions governments or parliamentary chambers have commissioned independent reviews to gather evidence on parliamentary workplace misconduct and make recommendations for improvement. Brief summaries of these recent developments, as well as measures taken by Australian political parties to address bullying and harassment, are set out in a recent Parliamentary Library research paper.

The Foster Review

On 16 February 2021 Prime Minister Morrison commissioned the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Stephanie Foster, to prepare a report on: current reporting procedures relating to serious incidents in the parliamentary workplace, particularly assault and sexual assault; measures to implement reporting and response processes that are independent from employers; and measures to provide improved support to victims. Ms Foster’s review focused primarily on parliamentarians and staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (MOP(S) Act)


Ms Foster’s review was completed on 24 May 2021. Her report, Review of the parliamentary workplace: responding to serious incidents identified 3 matters that required immediate attention:

  • the absence of readily accessible, timely, independent, trauma informed services and response mechanisms
  • a trusted independent complaint mechanism capable of delivering proportionate consequences for misconduct
  • adequate training and education for parliamentarians and their staff.


The report made 10 recommendations, all of which were adopted by the Government. These recommendations included the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism to handle serious incidents in the parliamentary workplace that occurred after the 46th Parliament commenced. The service, known as the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service (PWSS) was launched on 23 September 2021 and made available initially to MOP(S) Act staff and parliamentarians.

A further recommendation proposed that each House of the Parliament pass resolutions to recognise the independent complaints mechanism and to set out a process where parliamentarians who fail to cooperate with, or act on the recommendations of, a review may be referred to the relevant privileges committee. Resolutions addressing this issue, and declaring how the privileges committees must treat such a referral, where passed on 18 October 2021 and 19 October 2021.

The report also recommended amendments to the Statement of ministerial standards and the Statement of standards for ministerial staff to clearly articulate that assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and serious and systemic bullying are not acceptable. The Statement of ministerial standards was amended on 8 April 2022 to include new provisions relating to the obligations of ministers as employers and setting out how complaints concerning ministers’ conduct made to the PWSS will be treated. The Statement of standards for ministerial staff does not appear to have been amended as yet.

Further recommendations addressed:

  • the need for all parliamentarians and their staff to undertake training to understand their workplace health and safety responsibilities and how to respond to unacceptable behaviour
  • amendments to first response procedures for Parliamentary Security Service officers and Australian Federal Police officers
  • measures to monitor after-hours access to Parliament House.

The Jenkins Review

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, commenced an independent review on 5 March 2021 to identify measures to ensure all CPWs are safe and respectful, and reflect best practice in preventing bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault. The final report, Set the standard: report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, was delivered on 30 November 2021.


An anonymous online survey of CPW employees was conducted and revealed approximately half (51%) had experienced at least one incident of bullying, harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault in a CPW (p. 17). The report described systemic drivers and institution-specific risk factors associated with bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in CPWs, including:

  • significant power imbalances between employees
  • underrepresentation of women in senior roles and a lack of diversity more broadly
  • a lack of accountability and appropriate consequences for those engaging in misconduct and limited recourse for those who have experienced bullying, sexual assault or sexual harassment
  • a lack of clear standards of behaviour in some CPWs and inconsistent enforcement of standards
  • some leaders in CPWs either being directly responsible for misconduct, or lacking the skills necessary to prevent or discourage misconduct by others
  • political loyalties and interests, intense media and public scrutiny and fears over job security leading to a reluctance to report or address misconduct
  • high levels of pressure, travel, poor work/life balance and alcohol consumption creating environments which increase the likelihood of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault occurring
  • employment structures that lead to high levels of job insecurity, particularly for those employed under the MOP(S) Act, which discourage employees from raising bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault concerns. (pp. 14–16)


The report’s 28 recommendations intended to make improvements to CPWs in 5 areas: leadership; diversity, quality and inclusion; systems to support performance; standards reporting and accountability; and safety and wellbeing. Due to the complex nature of parliamentary administration, responsibility for implementing these recommendations is dispersed among a variety of different bodies. These include the chambers and parliamentary departments, the Government and its departments, parliamentarians and political parties. If all 28 recommendations are to be successfully implemented, it will require cooperation from, and coordination between, these various bodies that are not directed by any overarching authority.

The Mid-year economic and fiscal outlook 2021–22 allocated $17.8 million over 4 years for costs associated with implementing the report’s recommendations. This included $6.3 million for the PWSS, $6 million to establish an implementation taskforce, and ongoing funding for workplace training programs and a dedicated support line (p. 217). The 2022–23 Budget further allocated $4.1 million to establish an Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture (OPSC)- with a shopfront located at Parliament House- and expansion of the PWSS (p. 64).

Prior to the conclusion of the 46th Parliament, the Government or Parliament had:

Every state and territory parliament has adopted a code of conduct for parliamentarians; however, attempts to establish such a code federally have failed since the issue was first raised in 1975 (this history is briefly discussed in a recent Parliamentary Library research paper (pp. 5–6)). The adoption of a code of conduct is critical to establishing and consistently enforcing appropriate standards of conduct in parliamentary workplaces, and potentially overlaps with current proposals to establish a Commonwealth integrity commission. Some state integrity commissions can investigate breaches of parliamentary codes of conduct, provided certain thresholds are met (see, for example, sections 7–9 of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 1988 (NSW)). This situation may be replicated federally, depending on how its scope is defined (see the Briefing book article, 'National integrity commission').

Other more complex recommendations remain, including proposals to establish an Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture (OPSC) and an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission (IPSC) (see recommendations 11–16 and 2). In both cases, the review intends these bodies to be structured to provide them with independence from government or partisan political pressure, while ensuring they are accountable to the Parliament.

The report proposes that the OPSC be established as an independent, non-partisan institution, headed by a statutory officer who is accountable to the Parliament. The OPSC would provide support to parliamentarians and develop standardised policies, processes and programs in relation to recruitment, induction, performance management, professional development and career pathways. The OPSC would also deliver best practice, mandatory respectful workplace behaviour training and people management training (p. 22).

The IPSC would receive disclosures and handle informal and formal complaints about misconduct. It would also enforce relevant codes of conduct, make findings about misconduct, recommend sanctions and also apply sanctions where they do not interfere with parliamentary functions. The Jenkins Review envisaged that imposing sanctions on parliamentarians would rely on powers delegated to the IPSC by the 2 Houses. Where more serious sanctions are proposed, the IPSC would make a recommendation to the relevant House for determination (p. 25).

Private member’s Bills presented by successive members for Indi, Cathy McGowan in 2018, and by Helen Haines in 2020, each contained proposals to establish a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner- an independent officer of the Parliament tasked with investigating, making findings on and recommending sanctions in relation to apparent breaches of applicable codes of conduct. The Bills proposed that the commissioner would report to the relevant privileges committee and that any sanctions would require the support of two-thirds of the members of the chamber concerned. While these proposals predate the Jenkins Review, they illustrate how a body similar to the IPSC might be legislated.

The report refers to the standards framework as it relates to bullying and harassment complaints established by the House of Commons in the UK, which includes processes for independent investigations, review of more serious proposed sanctions by an Independent Expert Panel, and imposition of more serious proposed penalties by the House of Commons itself under its powers to punish contempts (p. 243). This process has in one case resulted in the suspension of a parliamentarian for 6 weeks for conduct the Independent Expert Panel found amounted to sexual harassment of a staff member.

The report also made recommendations that sitting calendars and routines of business be reviewed by the procedure committees of each House to limit practices that negatively affect parliamentary workers, including long and late sittings hours (see recommendation 27). Additionally, the report recommended the Presiding Officers review standing orders and conventions to eliminate language, behaviour and practices that are sexist or exclusionary, and improve safety and respect in the chambers (see recommendation 10). These recommendations have not yet been acted on; however, Prime Minister Albanese has expressed his aspiration to run a family-friendly Parliament, and other parliamentarians have expressed support for a variety of procedural reforms in the House of Representatives in the context of a significantly expanded crossbench. During the 46th Parliament the House of Representatives Procedure Committee proposed reforms to Question Time, but its proposals were not supported by the Morrison Government.

Further reading

Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces(the Jenkins Review), (Sydney: AHRC, 2021).

Parliamentary Leadership Taskforce, Jenkins Report Implementation Tracker, 18 March 2022

Stephanie Foster, Review of the Parliamentary Workplace: Responding to Serious Incidents(the Foster Review), (Canberra: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2021).

Deirdre Mckeown and Michael Sloane, Parliamentary Codes of Conduct: a Review of Recent Developments, Research paper series, 2021–22, (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, 2021).


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