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Politicians and their staff still have no mandatory bullying or harassment training, despite a 2012 legal undertaking made in the settlement of James Ashby’s sexual harassment claim. By Karen Middleton.

Harassment and federal parliament

The federal government gave a legal undertaking in 2012 to introduce specific education and training for MPs, senators and their staff about sexual harassment and bullying and how to manage and report it. But more than eight years on, this training remains optional.

The pledge was made by the then-Labor government as part of the financial settlement of a harassment suit from former Liberal staffer James Ashby.

The Department of Finance has told The Saturday Paper that it makes a range of workplace health and safety training available online, including on bullying and harassment. It says it sends monthly reminders to staff and parliamentarians that such training exists.

But this training is not mandatory and requires staff and parliamentarians to opt in. Many appear unaware of it.

The newest federal MP, Labor member for Eden–Monaro Kristy McBain, says she’s received no specific training on those issues.

“Kristy’s induction for Bega Valley Shire Council eight or nine years ago was more thorough than she got here,” McBain’s spokesman says.

A spokeswoman for the newest senator, Western Australian Liberal Ben Small, says there was a focus during his induction on managing employees “appropriately and sensitively” in relation to workplace grievances and available support for staff.

But she says “there wasn’t specifically mandatory training on sexual harassment or bullying”.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed the Nationals’ chief whip, MP Damian Drum, this week organised a special departmental briefing for male Nationals staff, to offer guidance on behavioural expectations and support for men in the current environment.

Drum says he called the briefing because Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie had called female staff in for an informal chat and to offer support as issues emerged over women’s safety in parliament.

Drum wanted to arrange the same opportunity for the men, and says there are legitimate grievances about the parliamentary atmosphere: “We need to change culture. There is behaviour – and actions – which [has] to change.”

But he also describes “a strong feeling” among some men in the Nationals that they are being tarred by allegations against others.

“I feel for them. I really do. There’s an element of accepting some guilt here because you were born male,” Drum says.

Rather than giving behavioural advice, the departmental officers gave the men a general briefing that covered the complaints mechanisms available to staff.

Drum concedes that, in the end, the men received a more comprehensive and formal briefing than the women. “If we do anything further, we do it as one,” he says.

Meanwhile, the leadership teams of the other major parties are being accused of hypocrisy in pledging to do more to prevent workplace harassment, abuse and assault.

On Wednesday night, a Morrison government adviser resigned after allegations surfaced he’d made derogatory remarks about Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor while working for the Tasmanian Liberal government two years ago.

Under parliamentary privilege, O’Connor alleged adviser Andrew Hudgson had hurled a “vile insult” while she was giving a media interview in 2019. O’Connor said she didn’t hear the alleged comment, but her media adviser and others heard Hudgson call her a “meth-head cunt”.

“Imagine hating women so much you’d say that audibly about a woman you don’t know, who also happens to be an elected representative,” O’Connor said. She described Hudgson as “a sexist pig”.

The incident was reported to the premier’s office at the time, but Hudgson continued in his job without investigation or consequence. Eventually, he moved to work for the federal government as an adviser to Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar.

Hudgson’s resignation from this role was demanded within an hour of the incident being made public this week.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday that the issue had come to his attention “only recently”.

“We dealt with this over the last couple of days as I think you would expect us to.”

But Hudgson’s immediate forced resignation contrasts with the government’s ongoing support for Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who admitted slurring former staffer and alleged rape victim Brittany Higgins. It also contrasts with its arguments about the importance of the rule of law and due process in relation to the historical rape allegations against Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, which he denies.

Labor has also faced condemnation, with Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong directly accused by Liberal MP Nicolle Flint of failing to intervene when activist group GetUp! and others allegedly “chased, harassed and screamed at” her during the last federal election campaign.

Flint is quitting politics, citing the impact of those events. GetUp! has said it was unaware of the allegations until this week. Labor’s shadow cabinet secretary, Jenny McAllister, said Plibersek and Wong had taken “every opportunity” to support women and call out bad behaviour.

Both the government and opposition are scrambling to demonstrate their credentials following Monday’s mass March 4 Justice rallies across Australia. Calls persist for better training for politicians and their staff on what constitutes bullying and harassment and how to prevent and respond to this behaviour in the workplace.

This is precisely the training promised as part of a written assurance in the 2012 Ashby legal settlement. “The Commonwealth will implement an improved education program for staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 concerning the process by which issues of bullying and harassment can be brought to its attention and remedied, and offer specific training for members and senators in relation to issues of sexual harassment,” the letter of final offer to Ashby from the Australian Government Solicitor said.

The assurance was given the day before the government and Ashby settled Ashby’s lawsuit against the Commonwealth that alleged his employer, the then-speaker Peter Slipper, had sexually harassed him. Seeking $4 million compensation to cover legal costs, Ashby was offered $50,000. As part of that settlement, he requested and received the training commitment.

The issue of attitudes to women dominated the parliamentary sitting week, leaving the government struggling to shift attention elsewhere. It was trying to press the senate crossbench to pass contentious industrial relations legislation on casual workers. A hollowed-out version of the omnibus bill went through on Thursday.

It was the last opportunity to pass the bill before the budget in May, with regular estimates committee hearings scheduled for next week ahead of a long break in April.

But it proved a challenge, with Christian Porter, who holds the Industrial Relations portfolio, on stress leave until March 31.

Porter is still facing intense pressure over an allegation of raping a 16-year-old girl when he was aged 17, which he denies.

Morrison has defended Porter as innocent under Australian law.

This week, Morrison opted not to attend the March 4 Justice rally outside Parliament House. Among other concerns, the protesters called for an independent inquiry into Porter’s fitness to continue as first law officer. Morrison tried to sympathise with protesters’ concerns but struck a sour note by comparing protests in Australia to some overseas.

“It is good and right that so many are able to gather here in this way, whether in our capital or elsewhere, and to do so peacefully to express their concerns and their very genuine and real frustrations,” he said. “This is a vibrant liberal democracy. Not far from here such marches, even now, are being met with bullets – but not here in this country. It is a triumph of democracy when we see these things take place.”

Some critics took the remarks as asking the marchers to feel “lucky” they were not shot. Morrison rejected that interpretation.

Having failed to stem the debate on sexual assault, he has sought to at least spread the political damage, accusing Labor of having its own political skeletons.

Over the past week, it has emerged that female Labor staffers used a Facebook group to detail graphic allegations of mistreatment by Labor men.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the allegations were “of concern”.

“I would encourage women to come forward,” Albanese said. “I encourage women to speak out. I encourage men to listen to those concerns and to respond … It is hard to look into anonymous suggestions. That is the truth.”

Former Labor MP Emma Husar added her criticism of the opposition. Labor dumped Husar amid public controversy involving allegations about sexualised and bullying behaviour, which she denied, and after an internal Labor investigation she insists was biased against her. Labor rejects Husar’s allegation.

Speaking to The Saturday Paper, Husar accused senior Labor figures of hypocrisy, insisting they did not defend her when she was subjected to a campaign of degradation. She pointed to events since – namely, the sexual slurs against Sarah Hanson-Young, over which the Greens senator successfully sued former senator David Leyonhjelm, as well as the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins on a couch in a minister’s office.

“Sarah and I were slut shamed and a young woman was [allegedly] raped in Parliament,” Husar said. “Don’t tell me things are getting better.”

The volatile debate on sexism is overlapping with other issues proving tough challenges for the government.

Morrison is also seeking to counter public confusion over the rollout next week of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and safety questions after some European countries suspended the vaccine’s use to investigate a handful of cases involving blood clots. The Australian government’s medical advisers insist there is no evidence supporting the concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be the only Covid-19 vaccine manufactured onshore and the one most Australians will receive.

The prime minister’s travails compounded further with the tabling late on Thursday of a highly critical senate committee report into the so-called sports rorts grant funding scandal of last year.

Aside from good jobs figures, his one significant political victory this week was confirmation that former Finance minister Mathias Cormann had won the highly prized post as Europe-based head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Unfortunately for the government, success in swinging international votes is unlikely to influence votes at home – from women or men.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Training wheels".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.