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Parliament House staff will learn all about respect - but MPs can opt out of classes

Politics

Taxpayer-funded contractors will attempt to re-educate parliamentary managers and staff on what is considered acceptable workplace behaviour. Attendance by politicians is ‘optional’.

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The Federal Government has issued a tender for contractors to deliver the workshops at Parliament House in Canberra and electorate offices around Australia over the coming months. There are expected to be 46 sessions in Queensland alone.

The move follows a review by deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Stephanie Foster, who found parliamentary workplaces were “not designed or able to” appropriately deal with bullying, assault and sexual assault.

After Foster discovered evidence of 76 complaints made by staff or MPs in less than four years, she recommended an overhaul of processes and training.

“It was clear from the consultations undertaken that the current processes in place have not kept pace with best practice in other organisations,” the report said.

The proposed training contract is intended to promote a safe and respectful workplace in federal politics, through participation in workshops, using course material already developed and with consideration of practical examples. Yet all this will occur “with parliamentarian attendance optional,” according to the tender documents.

Foster had wanted all MPs to “clearly articulate that assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and serious or systemic bullying and harassment are unacceptable in their workplaces, and act to support that commitment where necessary”.

In a report released two months ago, Foster recommended “targeted, personalised, face to face training for all parliamentarians and staff, including those in electorate offices”. She did not specifically state that MPs could opt out.

Last month, the government said “work is already well underway to implement face-to-face education and support for parliamentarians and their staff”. It is unclear whether there are any other plans for MPs, for example incorporating respectful relationships into the induction process following an election.

After the proposed training, staff are expected to “understand what behaviours constitute assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment and serious and systemic bullying and harassment and what does not”. Their workshops will take two hours.

Managers “and any parliamentarians who attend” will also be reminded of their workplace health and safety responsibilities and how to respond to any complaints or potential issues. These sessions will only take an hour.

The ability of MPs to opt out of such training comes despite widespread criticism of how Morrison Government ministers dealt with allegations staffer Brittany Higgins was raped in a Parliament House office in 2019. Other MPs and staff have also been accused of inappropriate behaviour in recent years.

It remains to be seen whether the training will become mandatory for staff but it is likely to be delivered with some caution initially, given some may have experience with difficult relationships and take the opportunity to raise concerns. Staff will be advised of the options available to them, managers given guidance on how to respond, and the government itself may even be briefed on any unexpected developments throughout the education program.

The training will commence in September and it is “highly desirable” it be completed by the end of the year. An election is also due within months.

Meanwhile, ACT prosecutors are considering the police brief of evidence in the Higgins case and whether to lay charges against another former Liberal staffer.

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