Comment

We should not bear Parliament’s ‘bear pit’ any longer

The results of a review into bullying and harassment in the parliamentary workplace may not be entirely surprising - but that does not make them any less horrifying. The question now is whether systemic change is possible, Sam Sachdeva writes.

That the findings of Debbie Francis’ inquiry into the toxic workplace culture at Parliament were not a shock is perhaps the most shocking thing.

A high-intensity culture with MPs and staff working long hours with no ability to decompress; a lack of leadership development and nearly non-existent HR practices; a “conspiracy of silence” allowing serial offender MPs to mistreat others without being held to account.

The public may not have known about this, but it seems that many on the parliamentary precinct had at least an inkling yet accepted it as the cost of political life, despite at least some (presumably) being in a position to change the status quo.

Yet the fact that Francis’ report may not have surprised those who work at or around Parliament does not make its contents any less awful.

Of their experience working for an MP, one former staffer said: “I just couldn’t cope with it. It shocked me. It’s taken me years to recover. I still can’t bear it that my last job in the workplace ended so badly.”

More than three-quarters of those interviewed had experienced or observed "unreasonable or aggressive behaviour that intimidates or threatens"; 14 respondents to an online survey had experienced sexual assault, with more than 100 subjected to unwanted touching or sexual advances.

Most alarmingly, three alleged incidents “appeared to be part of a multi-year pattern of predatory behaviour”, the report said.

Wisely, Francis leaned heavily on the words of those who had spoken to her to hammer home just how badly some employees have been treated.

Of their experience working for an MP, one former staffer said: “I just couldn’t cope with it. It shocked me. It’s taken me years to recover. I still can’t bear it that my last job in the workplace ended so badly.”

That quote, and many others like it in the report, should shame all those who failed in their duty of care so egregiously - even if they have been fortunate enough to escape a more public naming and shaming for now.

Parliament's bear pit, minus the bear

There will be some who say Parliament’s unique environment should insulate it from the expectations of workplace conduct and conditions placed upon other sectors and organisations.

After all, what’s the point of a bear pit without any bears to gawk at?

But while there are certainly some aspects of working on the precinct which bear little resemblance to other offices, that argument has its limits.

The Francis report bears more than a few resemblances to the Russell McVeagh review headed by Dame Margaret Bazley - specifically, the “work hard play hard culture”, the excessive work hours, and the lack of appropriate HR practices.

Many high-powered professions could likely make a case for why they should be treated differently - newsrooms included - but that does not mean we cannot or should not attempt to distinguish robustness from impropriety.

But it is in seeking to make that distinction and to bring Parliament into the 21st century where Francis and Speaker Trevor Mallard may find the most difficulty.

The changes proposed in Debbie Francis' report will take years of work and political goodwill from all parties to truly bed in. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The creation of a new workplace code of conduct for MPs, media and staff sounds good in theory - but can it be given the teeth to function as more than a token gesture towards greater tolerance, given the complex mix of accountability for public departments, political parties and external companies?

Greater workplace flexibility for MPs is also a welcome idea, but while Mallard has already made improvements in this area, the blocking of his proposal to let MPs leave Parliament earlier on a Thursday to be back with their family shows there may be some resistance from the old guard.

As both Mallard and Francis noted, there is no quick fix to the issues outlined in the report.

It will take years of hard work, and political goodwill from all parties, for any changes made to truly bed in.

That will be difficult, given what one staffer referred to as the “triennial groundhog day” of the parliamentary term.

But for the sake of those who shared their stories with Francis, let’s hope the commitment to change endures beyond her report’s stay in the headlines.

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