'Large pool' of people expected to come forward to Parliament House culture review

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins at Senate Estimates on Tuesday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins at Senate Estimates on Tuesday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says her office is preparing for a "large pool" of people to make submissions to the inquiry into cultural issues in Parliament House workplaces.

While the inquiry was sparked by the rape allegation made by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins and most of the focus has been on the culture in political offices, Ms Jenkins said the terms of reference were purposefully broad and include anyone working in Parliament House, including gardeners and cafe staff.

Ms Jenkins said she hoped to hear from current and former staff, to hear "good experiences and challenging experiences" and from staff across a range of parliamentary workplaces.

"We realise there's a potential for that to be a large pool of people and we're ready for that," Ms Jenkins said.

Ms Jenkins said the review could also hear from staff in electorate offices who did not travel to Parliament House, and recognised that parliamentary work happened outside Parliament House and electorate offices.

"We will recognise that people might be at polling booths or might be at social events in the course of their work."

Public servants who don't work day to day in Parliament House, but who are regularly in the building through their work, are also covered by the terms of reference. People working in businesses that operate inside Parliament House, like the childcare centre or Aussies cafe, as well as in the press gallery would also be covered.

"The terms of reference really are quite broad, and allow us to recognise all those different cultures, the different ways of working, the different employment arrangements, and the different lines of responsibility," Ms Jenkins said.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner avoided commenting directly when asked about Prime Minister Scott Morrison bringing up an alleged incident of harassment at a news organisation in response to a journalist's question.

"I'm really confident that the reason we were engaged was because of our independence and because of our expertise," she said.

"People feel very pleased that we will create the avenues for people to come forward with that assurance about confidentiality."

Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace across Australia were generally reluctant to come forward, Ms Jenkins said, based on evidence to the wide-ranging report already delivered.

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Concerns over whether the submissions made to the review would be exempt from Freedom of Information laws and the Archives Act led the Senate to pass an amendment to the Archives Act in a hurry on Thursday.

Since that day, concerns have been raised that remit of the amendment has been written too broadly. Ms Jenkins said it would not materially alter the conduct of the review if amendments to the rules weren't passed until the next sittings of Parliament in May.

Ms Jenkins assured senators the Human Rights Commission had longstanding procedures and systems to deal with submissions confidentially. She confirmed that if any person making a submission or giving evidence to the inquiry made an allegation of a criminal nature, it would remain that person's decision about whether the matter went to police.

"We would not be progressing anything," Ms Jenkins said.

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This story 'Large pool' of people expected to come forward to Parliament House culture review first appeared on The Canberra Times.