- The Australian government’s work health and safety authority Comcare said that only a “very small number” of bullying and harassment complaints have been filed by staff working for federal politicians in the past five years.
- Comcare gave this answer to Business Insider Australia in response to a Freedom of Information request asking for the total number of claims.
- This comes amid increased scrutiny of conditions for parliamentary staff, who are provided fewer protections under their terms of employment.
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There have been so few sexual harassment or bullying incidents reported to the government’s work health and safety authority by political staffers in the past five years that they have refused to report the total amount for fear of identifying the individuals who have complained.
Following a Four Corners investigation that featured former federal Liberal Party staff member Rachelle Miller who claimed she was transferred, demoted and “blacklisted” after having a consensual relationship with federal minister Alan Tudge, there has been increased scrutiny on the work health and safety protections for political staffers.
Each federal MP and Senator are allowed to hire a number of staff under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 to carry out the duties of their office.
Under the MOP(S) Act, staff are directly hired and fired by their Member or Senator with fewer protections than a normal employee.
A 2009 report into the MOP(S) Act found that “employing senators, members and office-holders may terminate the employment of their staff at any time”.
And if they are bullied or harassed — including by their employer — there are only a few avenues they can take.
Firstly, they can report an incident directly to their employer.
MOP(S) Act staff can also make a complaint to the Department of Finance, who can investigate but ultimately have no power to sanction a parliamentarian even if the complaint is upheld.
They can also go to the Fair Work Commission or Australian Human Rights Commission, which are both lengthy, external processes.
And their final option is to make a report to Comcare, which runs the Commonwealth’s workers’ compensation scheme.
Comcare may inspect the workplace, direct the employee to go through the Department of Finance, or pay out a claim if they determine the workplace is unsafe due to workplace bullying or harassment, according to the MOPS(S) Act work health and safety policies.
So just how often are MPs staff going to Comcare with workers compensation claims about workplace bullying or harassment?
Not often, according to a Comcare spokesperson.
Last week, Business Insider Australia submitted a Freedom of Information request asking how many staff employed under the MOP(S) Act had made complaints, how many of those complaints were finalised and how much was paid out over the past 5 years.
Shortly afterwards, a Comcare spokesperson told Business Insider directly that “only a small number” of claims had been received in the past 5 years.
“Over the past five years, Comcare has received only a small number of workers’ compensation claims from workers employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act (the MOPS Act) where work-related bullying/harassment was the cause of injury. Not all of these claims were accepted,” they said via email.
“In our role as a work health and safety regulator, Comcare responded to a small number of work health and safety concerns involving allegations of workplace bullying/harassment that were reported by MOPS Act staff over the same period.”
The Comcare spokesperson claimed that there were so few claims that revealing the specific number would violate the privacy of those who had made claims.
“As these numbers are very small, we cannot provide data due to the risk of identifying individuals,” they said.
While reporting bullying and harassment to Comcare is one option, the authority’s answer suggests that only a few of the hundreds of staffers who’ve worked in Parliament during this period are choosing to use this avenue.
It’s not clear whether this is caused by a low awareness of processes, a preference for other forms of resolution or any number of other reasons.
On 16 November, MOP(S) staff who serve on the Department of Finance’s Ministerial and Parliamentary Services’ WHS committee reported an increase in queries related to the support available for bullying and harassment at a meeting.