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Motion for Respect: Report into Workplace Culture in the Tasmanian Ministerial and Parliamentary Services

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Tags: Parliament, Workers Rights

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, I thank the Premier for bringing on these motions, for the collaborative way to date that he has responded to the Bolt report, and also the Leader of the Opposition for being a very collaborative member of the working group established following the announcement of the review. Obviously, the Greens will be supporting both motions.

Every employee has the right to work in a safe, inclusive and respectful workplace. Every employer has the responsibility to provide this, to value and empower their staff, to listen to them and demonstrate respect.

This place - parliament and the broader Ministerial and Parliamentary Services - should be no different in many ways from any other workplace. However, we all know that it is very different. It is a place apparently trapped in time. That is what the Motion for Respect report tells us: as a workplace, Tasmania's parliament and MPS are trapped in the last century.

Commissioner Bolt's report describes a workplace that, for too many people, is toxic and unsafe. It describes a place where people have been abused, marginalised and in some cases groped, harassed. It describes a place people have left with post-traumatic stress disorder. There is a power imbalance in this place. I am not sure if every member has read Commissioner Bolt's report, Motion for Respect. I certainly hope so, because we all own this report, and we all own the responsibility to make sure that the MPS workplace joins the twenty-first century, that it is safe, inclusive and respectful.

We know that political staff, particularly, can feel great loyalty to the MP or minister they work to or the party they represent. From the Greens' point of view, Dr Woodruff and I are very thankful for the quality and commitment of the people we work with, and for their loyalty. This loyalty, as Commissioner Bolt's report makes clear, can be a double-edged sword. The loyalty, the politics of this place can, and has, prevented reporting. It can and has fostered silence. It has caused harm.

Commissioner Bolt's report lays bare in brutal detail what an unhealthy workplace this can be. I thank the Equal Opportunity Commissioner, Sarah Bolt, and her team for their diligence and rigour, and the way that they approached this review and report, and the way that they encouraged all of us to come forward into a safe place, to tell our stories of working in MPS.

Thank you to every person who participated, whether they fed into the survey or undertook an interview, every person who made one of 620 substantive comments to the review. People who work in this building as parliamentary staff, MPs' staff, ministerial staff, and people who work in departments to parliament and government, your experiences and input will be a catalyst for change, and this is change that is desperately needed.

I understand the cynicism about whether change is possible. I firmly believe it is.

On behalf of the Greens and as a member of this place, I am deeply and unreservedly sorry that too many MPS staff and a number of MPs and MLCs, mostly female, have experienced workplace discrimination, bullying, harassment, trauma and stress. It is completely unacceptable. As a Green, I commit wholeheartedly to doing all I can as a member of this committee to make this workplace safe, respectful and inclusive.

There are a couple of other acknowledgements I need to make before I go to the findings. We owe a debt of thanks to the Independent member for Nelson, Meg Webb, who wrote to the previous premier in the wake of frankly disgusting sexism and cultural toxicity in the federal parliament and work that was being undertaken on the Jenkins report. The previous premier, to his credit, had the courage to recognise there is a problem and the courage to establish this review and committee.

On the findings, this is something we need to be extremely mindful of. People who fed into this review expressed a high level of collegial mistrust within the MPS workplace. They expressed a sense of helplessness and fear to complain or call out bad behaviour due to fear of retribution, lack of consistent policies and processes, and a perceived lack of job security. Staff and others who contributed to the review reported bullying behaviours, such as yelling, screaming, swearing, belittling and ostracising as common place. They were worried about a lack of accountability and the consequences for those who exercise or exhibit bullying discrimination or sexually harassing behaviours.

They talk about something which permeates this place. It is unseen but it is quite tangible: a prevailing attitude of self-entitlement, self-importance and bullying behaviours among those in positions of power or whose employment status is secure; a culture of removing those who complain and rewarding the bully. The findings tell us that with too many managers - and every MP in this place is a manager because we have the great privilege of being able to employ staff - it is clear there is no training on how to manage staff and too many managers have little or no expertise in people management. The findings point to disrespectful behaviours having a cascading effect through the MPS workplace, including permeating into the wider public service.

The commissioner has found that there is an overwhelming appetite for cultural change, accountability and consistent workplace practices. Through her 14 recommendations, Commissioner Bolt has laid out the path towards that necessary goal.

There are a couple of findings I will raise and question. One finding is that despite the record number of women in parliament, it is perceived that their behaviour towards each other, particularly during debates, does little to attract a talented pool of women into politics. In some ways that finding could be interpreted as the behaviour in parliament partly being a woman problem. As one of the mouthier women in this Chamber, my observation is that the insults that fly are not gendered. Dr Woodruff and I have been called all sorts of things, demonised as Greens as we are by our colleagues, male and female. It is the general tone of the place that can put talented women off entering politics.

I note, however, that things have changed a bit. Until quite recently women had the numbers in this Chamber across political boundaries. There has been a slight setback. The introduction of cameras into this Chamber did lead to significant cultural change within this Chamber. Obviously, we have a long way to go, but I recommend to members going back and having a look at some of the Hansard before there were cameras in here. Have a look at the kind of abuse women like Judy Jackson, Fran Bladel, Sue Napier, Christine Milne, Di Hollister and Peg Putt copped from the men in this Chamber when there were no cameras here to record their behaviours. Every woman elected to this place owes those female MPs who came before us an acknowledgement of what they went through, and a debt of gratitude.

It is a very imperfect workplace, but it has changed. I remember being a young journalist here 30-odd years ago, and being helped up the stairs by my buttock by a well-known MP at the time. Just giving me a little lift up the stairs. That was so commonplace.

The other finding that I want to challenge is the finding that the Estimates process is too often weaponised for political gain. As a member of a cross-bench party, I am not sure exactly where this has come from. Having sat through Estimates here for 14 years, I do not think the word 'weaponised' is fair, because we come to the table with information and questions on behalf of stakeholders and constituents. When you are confronted with a minister who will not be honest, or dodges a truthful answer, should we just let that go? I do not think so. We all have a responsibility in here to stand up for our constituents and our values. That is why sometimes in here it becomes quite heated. Much of the time, of course, we are all getting on. We have had some excellent debates on bills, negotiations around amendments, outside the heat of question time.

It is a fact of the Westminster system that there will be volatility in this Chamber at the Estimates table. Our responsibility is to make sure that that does not infect the culture of the rest of this place. One of the things I have always sought to do, and always appreciated in others, is to try kindness as the default to your political colleagues outside this Chamber. It is really important that we do.

There are 14 recommendations here, all of which are common sense and achievable. They are recommendations that have come from the testimony of staff, MPs, and MLCs who work in this building. I understand the caution in the motion about committing specifically to any specific recommendation, but when you look at these recommendations, they are very thoughtfully stepped out and there are milestones along the way. Every one of these recommendations has significant practical value.

One of the most important things we can do is to establish safe processes for people to report to. It is a matter of fact that if a person, whether they be a member of the broader public or someone who works in MPS, has a complaint to make about the conduct of an MP, whether it be lawful or unlawful, they must go to you, Mr Speaker. For any other complaint against a public officer, the option is to go to the Integrity Commission or the Ombudsman. In the upper House, if you have a complaint about an MLC, you need to take it to the President. That again tells us that this place has effectively been designed as a closed shop, and that is how a culture of secrecy and poor behaviour is allowed to flourish.

We have legislation on the table, and without saying too much to pre-empt an order of the day, Dr Woodruff's bill, the Public Interest Disclosure (Members of Parliament) Bill 2021, seeks to fix that anomaly in our whistleblower legislation so that people who work in this Chamber as elected representatives and people who work in the upper House as elected representatives are subject to the same complaints reporting processes as other public officers. You cannot have a system that is partisan. We need to fix that and we need to create a structure so that if someone in this place who works in MPS experiences bullying, discrimination and harassment, they know exactly where to go and they know they will be supported and they know it will be a safe space. That has been missing from this place since forever and it is part of the reason we end up with a report that is as shocking as Commissioner Bolt's.

As I said, we all own this report and we all have a responsibility collectively to work together in good faith and collaborate on delivering those recommendations and a safer workplace. This needs to happen across parties, including independents, and be across both Houses. We cannot allow this process to be delayed or to look like it is being stalled. We have to be mindful of the expectation of people who work in MPS that we have all committed to delivering real change. We stood together last Monday - highly unusual - in significant part to acknowledge that we all have a responsibility but also to send a clear and unequivocal signal to people who work in MPS that we are resolved to do better and we are resolved to get this right.

In so many ways, this is a wonderful place to work. It is interesting, it is mentally stimulating and no matter which part of MPS you work in, your work can deliver real outcomes for the people of Tasmania, but if we do not have the culture right, people will not be safe and it will take the joy out of working here in Tasmania's parliament.

My final thought for the Premier - and this goes back to the findings around weaponising Estimates or women behaving badly in here - is that if he wants to lower the temperature in this place, he needs to tell his ministers to be truthful. He needs to be really clear with his Cabinet members that avoiding an answer is unacceptable. I watch it every question time. You can see - and I am sure you note this too, Mr Speaker - that the interjections increase in intensity and volume when a minister is dodging a question. It cuts both ways. Yes, we can and must all take collective responsibility for improving the culture of this workplace and this Chamber, but Dr Woodruff and I are not going to sit in silence while ministers avoid scrutiny or seek to avoid scrutiny. We will have a lowering of the temperature in here - which I am sure, Mr Speaker, you would appreciate - if there was a substantive cultural shift in the way ministers respond to questions, whether they be in question time, during debate on a bill, in Estimates or GBE hearings. It would make such a difference.

I am looking forward to being part of the committee that we will move to establish today, to working collaboratively with my colleagues across politics, to continuing to listen to staff and the people we work with, to make sure that we have a culture of continuous improvement.

I believe the Greens have a happy, inclusive and respectful office, but I am sure there are improvements we can make in there too. Maybe we swear too much, I do not know, but I am very thankful to our staff, a number of whom made a contribution to Commissioner Bolt's report. We had a conversation with our team on the Monday of the report's release, before the release, because I very strongly feel that we cannot just whip this away from the people who are the foundation of this workplace. Involving MPS staff, who we are responsible to, in progress as we move forward is essential if those good people we work with are to have faith in the process and believe there will be an outcome.

I am very pleased to say Dr Woodruff and I are looking forward to being a constructive part of cultural change so that we can make the Parliament of Tasmania one of the safest, most respectful, interesting and healthy workplaces in the state.