The Sex Discrimination Commissioner believes an independent complaints handling body may be needed to deal with staffing concerns in Parliament House.
- Kate Jenkins says unique circumstances to Parliament House must be investigated in her inquiry
- She said she could not foreshadow recommendations, but an independent body to handle complaints could be one
- The inquiry follows several allegations of sexual assaults in Parliament, most recently by Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins
Kate Jenkins has been asked to lead an independent inquiry into the culture on Capital Hill, in the wake of an allegation by a former Liberal staffer that she was raped by a colleague in a ministerial office.
Brittany Higgins’s complaint, and her insistence that she was not given adequate support by colleagues and then-boss, Defence minister Linda Reynolds, has started a serious conversation about behaviour and standards in the corridors of power.
Commissioner Jenkins said there were several issues unique to Parliament House that needed to be investigated as part of her probe.
“One of them is that layer of employment arrangements, because it is so unusual who has the power to hire and fire,” she told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.
“All of that is slightly different to the average community, so I think that’s relevant.”
Political staff are employed directly by the elected representative they work for, prompting suggestions party loyalty is regularly considered more important than due process.
When Ms Higgins went public, she said she felt like her rape allegation was being viewed more as a political problem than a potential criminal offence, and suggested she was forced to choose between going to the police or continuing to advance her career in politics.
Commissioner Jenkins suggested an independent organisation to confidentially handle staff complaints and concerns could be one of her recommendations, when she reports back in November.
“There is some confusion if you’re in a ministerial office where you go [with a complaint],” she said.
“But I think laid on top of that there is actually a view that that’s not the appropriate amount of independence, and so in addition to that [there’s] a real fear of using the mechanisms that are in place.
“I can’t foreshadow what the outcome will be, but I can probably foreshadow — and based on other global experiences — that there will be looking at a mechanism that’s more independent, that’s more trusted, that means people can come forward without this fear.”
Commissioner Jenkins encouraged staff in Parliament House to make submissions to her review about their “good, bad or indifferent” experiences working in the building, but noted her inquiry would not be making rulings on the veracity of any complaints.
Commissioner remains tight-lipped on views about inquiry into Christian Porter
Commissioner Jenkins refused to comment on whether she believed an independent inquiry into a historical rape allegation levelled at Attorney-General Christian Porter was appropriate or, as has been maintained by senior government ministers, would undermine the rule of law.
Mr Porter is currently on medical leave, after publicly identifying himself as the Cabinet Minister named in an anonymous letter, which alleged he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 when he was aged 17.
He has strenuously denied the allegation.
Friends of the complainant, who took her own life last year, are demanding an independent inquiry be established to investigate the allegation, given New South Wales Police have already determined there is “insufficient admissible evidence” to proceed with an investigation.
“I believe in the presumption of innocence,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday.
“There is no alternative rule of law that should apply to one Australian and not to another, and the suggestion that there should be, I think, can go to undermining the very principles of the rule of law in this country.”
Former deputy prime minister, now backbench Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, disagreed with Mr Morrison on Saturday.
“Christian Porter may not want an independent inquiry, but he has got one by default,” he posted on Facebook.
“A demeaning, cathartic inquisition by the press and Opposition. It is achieving little beyond ratings as salacious dissonance and certainly not offering any solace to any party involved.
“The alternative should be an inquiry, in camera, the confidential one, not the media’s camera. A vastly more dignified, appropriate alternative for such an emotive and serious allegation, otherwise the current vacuum may hang like fog all the way through the rest of a quite remarkable career.”