Former political staffer Brittany Higgins, whose alleged rape took place in Parliament House (Image: Dean Lewins/AAP)

A paltry one hour of training. A handful of recommendations implemented. Summits postponed. Allegations ignored. Politicians excused. 

The government’s approach to addressing parliamentary sexual violence has been abysmal. While plenty of reviews and recommendations have been announced, the actual substance of these inquiries have been lacklustre, resulting in lip service over action from our elected officials. 

One “action” taken will be to introduce training for parliamentarians to deal with sexual assault, bullying and harassment. But training won’t happen until September, will go for as little as one hour, and will be completely optional for MPs. 

Little and very late

Tenders for the training were released yesterday, requesting organisations to run sessions based on training that has already been developed by the Respect@Work Council. It will be delivered via a two-hour face-to-face session with staffers and a one-hour face-to-face session with chiefs of staff and office managers. Parliamentarians will be given the option to attend this training. 

Why parliamentarians are exempt from mandatory training is a complete mystery, given half of all workplace behaviour complaints in the building are about MPs. An internal review conducted by the deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Stephanie Foster, found 76 complaints were made by employees or MPs in less than four years. Thirty-eight of these complaints were related to the conduct of parliamentarians.

This review recommended the training, though said immediate action should “begin with targeted, personalised, face-to-face training for all parliamentarians and staff, including those in electorate offices”. 

History shows it’s unlikely many MPs will take up the training. In 2020-21, just 17% of Parliament staff completed training to prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace, the review found.

An hour or two will achieve nothing

UTS associate law professor and workplace discrimination expert Karen O’Connell told Crikey that the way the training was structured meant it was likely going to have a negative, rather than positive, impact on behaviour. 

“It goes against all the research about what good training is,” she said. “It will not be very effective and this very likely means it will have the opposite effect.”

While mandatory training often puts people off, she said in many cases it was necessary, though it needed to be done in a way that makes people accept it and its necessity, with a focus on skill-based training — which means more hours, not fewer.

“The people who are most likely to not do training are the people most likely to need it. So you’re also, by making it not mandatory, you’re missing out on the people who most need it. It’s how to create the worst of all worlds,” O’Connell said. 

“It’s just totally unacceptable and I think it’s so disrespectful to all of the women who have had to put their own personal and professional lives on the line, all the women who came out to march, all those who have worked so hard to change things around Parliament. I just think it’s really offensive.”

A series of Labor and Liberal MPs, including Katy Gallagher, Celia Hammond, Tanya Plibersek and Fiona Martin, have called for the training to be ongoing and mandatory

The Community and Public Sector Union has been calling for mandatory bullying and harassment training since 2017 and has consistently been rebuffed by the Coalition. 

A list of other depressing announcements

In other disappointing news, the Women’s Safety Summit has been postponed due to the Sydney COVID-19 outbreak. The summit was supposed to help shape the next national blueprint for tackling domestic violence and take place on July 28 and 29 in Parliament House but has been moved to September 6 and 7.

This summit is crucial given Australia’s 12-year framework to reduce domestic violence expires next year. It’s also crucial given a new report by Equity Economics found a lack of affordable housing causes 7700 women a year to return to violent partners, with more than 9000 becoming at risk of homelessness. Lockdown exacerbates domestic and sexual violence, causing support services to become overwhelmed and complications for women trying to flee.  

The government still hasn’t responded to the Foster review, which was released more than a month ago. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has hinted the new complaints procedures recommended by the review won’t cover retrospective alleged incidents — meaning alleged abusers won’t face the same levels of scrutiny. 

Recommendations from the Respect@Work report, which took a year, the March4Justice rally, and multiple allegations of parliamentary sexual violence for the government to respond to, have yet to be fully implemented. While the government announced it would accept all of the report’s 55 recommendations “wholly, in part, or in principle”, a fair work amendment bill implements just six of those 55 recommendations. 

There was just a two-week turnaround for submissions for the Respect@Work bill to implement other recommendations, leaving advocacy groups scrambling to respond. Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins is currently undertaking an Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, with the report due in November.

It’s still unclear when the second internal review announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February, conducted by the secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department Philip Gaetjens, will be released.