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In one of his last acts as prime minister, Scott Morrison amended the ministerial standards to finally deal with sexual assault and harassment. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Morrison’s late change to ministerial standards

Former prime minister Scott Morrison.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images

Two days before he called the federal election, then prime minister Scott Morrison quietly amended the statement of ministerial standards that sets out the behaviour expected of government’s most senior members.

Morrison added six paragraphs to the 11-page statement, highlighting that behaviour including “assault, sexual assault, harassment, sexual harassment and bullying” is “unacceptable” and that ministers are not only responsible for their own actions but for clearly explaining this to their staff.

The new section that was slipped into the ministerial code of conduct says ministers are expected to co-operate with the independent Parliamentary Workplace Support Service, set up last year. The PWSS receives complaints from anyone working in a parliamentary precinct – whether staff or MPs – and provides support for those subjected to inappropriate treatment.

The statement now says that both ministers and staff must undertake mandatory training on “safe and respectful workplaces” and ministers must ensure their employees comply with the separately published statement of standards for ministerial staff.

Several former cabinet ministers have told The Saturday Paper they were unaware the change had been made.

The new version of the ministerial code says that, for a minister, becoming the subject of a “serious” complaint upheld by the PWSS constitutes “a breach of these standards” – in other words, it would be a sackable offence.

Morrison’s updated standards retained the ban on ministers employing close relatives and partners in their offices and required specific prime ministerial permission for colleagues to employ them.

The standards also retained the ban on ministers having sex with their staff, which was also a sackable offence.

It is unclear why the new paragraphs were inserted only days before the government went into caretaker mode, when they were responding to the recommendations of two inquiries completed five and 11 months earlier, respectively.

The insertions reflect recommendations made by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins after her inquiry into parliamentary workplace culture and a separate but related review of the reporting process for serious incidents occurring within Parliament House, conducted by the deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Stephanie Foster.

It is possible Morrison was simply clearing unfinished business before calling the election. Some are speculating it could have been a protective move in an electoral environment in which issues around women had become a problem for the Coalition. Those sources suggest that, had Morrison been accused of failing to act on key Jenkins and Foster recommendations, he may have planned to point to his belated change to the standards in response.

The Saturday Paper sought a response from Morrison’s spokesperson but did not receive one before time of press.

Morrison had commissioned the Jenkins and Foster reviews following an allegation, made public in February last year, that a former Liberal staffer, Brittany Higgins, had been raped in a ministerial office in 2019.

Last Tuesday, Australian Capital Territory chief justice Lucy McCallum delayed the jury trial of former ministerial adviser Bruce Lehrmann, the man accused of raping Higgins, due to renewed publicity surrounding the case.

Lehrmann’s jury trial had been set to begin on Monday. He denies the rape allegation and is pleading not guilty.

Justice McCallum said her decision was made “regrettably and with gritted teeth” but that it was necessary due to the acceptance speech made by journalist Lisa Wilkinson, presenter of Network Ten’s The Project, at last weekend’s Logies television awards ceremony. The speech mentioned Higgins and sparked renewed media coverage of her allegation.

The judge said Wilkinson had been warned not to give such a speech because further publicity could prompt a stay of the trial. Justice McCallum cited examples of media commentary the day after Wilkinson’s speech that failed to clarify that rape was alleged and not proved.

“Somewhere in this debate, the distinction between an untested allegation and the fact of guilt has been lost,” she told the court. “… The public at large has been given to believe that guilt is established. The importance of the rule of law has been set at nil.”

On Thursday, Justice McCallum announced the trial would start on October 4. She has demanded written undertakings that Wilkinson and others will make no further public comment pertaining to the case.

Morrison’s update of the ministerial standards also came amid renewed attention on another controversy that had dogged his government – issues around the past behaviour of one of his cabinet ministers, Alan Tudge.

Tudge conducted an extramarital affair with his then media adviser Rachelle Miller in 2017 – before the PWSS existed and before then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s amendment to the ministerial standards, which formally banned ministers from having sex with staff.

On March 4 this year, Morrison announced that the former Education minister would not be returning to the frontbench. Tudge had stood aside in December when Miller accused him publicly of having engaged in emotional and physical abuse during their affair, an allegation he denies.

On March 4, Morrison published the findings of an inquiry he had commissioned into Miller’s allegations, saying they provided no basis for finding Tudge had breached the ministerial standards, but that Tudge had nonetheless opted not to return to the frontbench.

The reviewer, former senior bureaucrat Dr Vivienne Thom, was unable to find “on the balance of probabilities” that Tudge had bullied or harassed Miller or been abusive towards her, due to “insufficient evidence”. Miller had declined to co-operate with the inquiry.

At the time the report was published, Miller was engaged in negotiations over a $500,000 payout the federal government had offered in relation to a workplace claim she had lodged for bullying, harassment and discrimination while she was a Coalition staffer, allegedly involving more than one Liberal member of parliament.

Morrison made the unannounced change to his ministerial standards on April 8. At his news conference two days later, announcing he had called the election for May 21, he was asked if Alan Tudge would be restored to cabinet should the Coalition be returned.

Morrison replied: “Alan Tudge is still in my cabinet.”

Late that afternoon, the news.com.au website revealed the $500,000 negotiations between Miller and the Department of Finance.

Asked the next day why the government was negotiating a payout if Tudge had done nothing wrong, Morrison said Tudge was “technically” still a cabinet minister, although not receiving a ministerial salary. He said Tudge would be welcomed back in a re-elected Coalition cabinet.

“Should Mr Tudge wish to return, I know he will,” Morrison said on April 11. “And I look forward to him doing that.”

On April 14, Miller’s negotiations with the government stalled after she issued a statement releasing the federal government from its confidentiality obligations in relation to her workplace claim. The same week, The Saturday Paper learnt that her claim also accused another Liberal MP of having sexually harassed her. The government declined to conclude the payout negotiations before the election. The Saturday Paper understands they remain unresolved under the new government.

The update to the ministerial standards is the first since Morrison reissued the standards upon becoming prime minister in August 2018.

Incoming prime ministers generally reissue the standards upon taking office, replacing their predecessor’s foreword with one of their own and making any other desired wording changes.

Morrison originally replaced predecessor Malcolm Turnbull’s foreword with a shorter version that also removed Turnbull’s reference to ministers needing to behave with “integrity and respect” towards others and especially staff and public servants.

Prime Minister Albanese is expected to update the ministerial standards again in coming weeks. The Saturday Paper understands he is likely to make changes, which would be subject to cabinet endorsement.

Morrison’s updated ministerial standards were published without fanfare online. However, a separate six-month-old report on the relationship between ministerial staff and the public service remained unpublished before the election.

The “Strengthening Partnerships” report pre-dated the other reviews but reached some similar conclusions about the need to change the employment arrangements for ministerial staff.

That report was prepared by a taskforce that included Stephanie Foster and former senior staff of Australian Liberal and Labor prime ministers and a former New Zealand official. The Australian Public Service Commission published it two days after the election.

The taskforce proposed creating a central human resources hub for parliamentary staff and introducing better training for ministerial advisers.

It also proposed greater interaction between the public service and ministerial staff, so that each better understood the other’s roles.

The federal government is believed to be proceeding with Kate Jenkins’ proposed creation of an office of parliamentary staffing and culture to overhaul employment practices and support both parliamentarians and their staff.

This week, Prime Minister Albanese announced the appointment of new departmental secretaries, replacing several who are departing or moving as a result of the change of government.

Former senior bureaucrat Gordon de Brouwer is returning in a newly created two-year position as secretary of Public Sector Reform, reporting to the minister for the Public Service, Katy Gallagher. De Brouwer will oversee changes to the way the public service operates, reflecting the new government’s concern that it has been underused and had its capabilities eroded under the Coalition.

Other new appointments are for five years. Several secretaries closely associated with the former government and former prime minister are moving on.

Simon Atkinson, who has overseen the Infrastructure and Transport department through several controversies, including the Coalition government’s commuter car park grant funding rounds, is departing, replaced by former senior New South Wales government bureaucrat Jim Betts.

The secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Kathryn Campbell, is moving to what is described as a senior role in Defence related to the new AUKUS submarine agreement. Australia’s ambassador to Japan, Jan Adams, is returning to Australia to replace her.

Current Industry department head David Fredericks is being promoted into the new Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

Natalie James, a partner at Deloitte Australia, becomes head of the newly created Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, and Jenny Wilkinson also moves up from a deputy role in Treasury to become secretary of the Finance department when incumbent Rosemary Huxtable retires in August.

Defence secretary Greg Moriarty and Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo remain in their jobs, which underscores the new government’s argument that the approach to defence and national security – including border protection – remains unchanged.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Exclusive: Morrison rushed to amend ministerial standards".

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

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