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Setting the tone from the top: Parliamentary workplace codes of conduct in the spotlight

Young businessman working on a virtual screen of the future and sees the inscription: Code of conduct

In the latest stage of an independent review into parliamentary behaviour, Governance Institute recently appeared at a Joint Select Committee to discuss workplace harassment issues and the importance of a strong code of conduct.

Governance Institute CEO Megan Motto and General Manager, Policy & Advocacy Catherine Maxwell spoke at the public hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Standards as witnesses.

The committee was established as a result of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ independent review into parliamentary behaviour, to inquire into and report on matters relating to the development of codes of conduct for Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces.

Governance Institute’s view

In her opening statement, Ms Motto outlined why a lift in parliamentary workplace behaviour is essential.

‘Trust in our public institutions is low and our own Ethics Index has shown that politicians in the three layers of government appear in three of the bottom five of the least ethically perceived professions in Australia. We know trust is important. It’s the glue that binds society. It’s incredibly important that we have good culture in parliament,” Ms Motto said.

Ms Motto told the committee that Governance Institute strongly supports clear standards of conduct through a uniform code of conduct for all parliamentarians, a code of conduct for parliamentarians’ staff and the establishment of standards of conduct that would apply to all activity within the parliamentary precincts.

‘The code should specifically refer to the tone being set at the top, and the importance of leadership,” Ms Motto said.

Ms Motto explained that ministers, members of parliament and other leaders must model the culture they wish to see. Furthermore, Ms motto said values needed to be lived and codes of conduct must be supported by actions; they must lead on this issue, not only by supporting practical and systemic reforms, but personally as well, by setting the right example for their staff.

Should there be sanctions?

When questioned on the efficacy of sanctions in the code of conduct by Senator and Deputy Chair of the Committee Marise Payne, Ms Motto reaffirmed that sanctions starting at the top were crucial.

‘Accountability is incredibly important. The tone is set at the top. Without the key tenet of accountability, our code of conduct is just words on a page. No-one will follow it without there being consequences for actions in breach. And those consequences need to be fit for purpose.

‘When you’re thinking about a regime of penalties, if you like, they need to be befitting of the action and the context of what’s going on. So, we would definitely suggest that a layered approach is best.

‘For a code of conduct to be more than words on a page it must be independently enforced. In the private sector positive duties with consequences for failure are a key part of accountability,” Ms Motto said.

Role for intersectionality in codes of conduct?

In response to questioning from Senator Mehreen Faruqi on the possibility of embedding an intersectional lens to a code of conduct, Ms Motto emphasised that any effective code of conduct deals with the intersection of governance, trust and culture.

‘We would certainly support an intersectional lens because we think that provides a deeper understanding of the cultural impediments in institutions to the fully realised benefits of inclusion. We would support that lens because it creates that deeper understanding. That then benefits all the elements of diversity you’re trying to prosper and encourage,” Ms Motto said.

What’s next?

With the committee report due to be handed down by 1 December of this year, the next stage in establishing a strong code of conduct for those who work in Federal Parliament draws closer.

Governance Institute will continue to closely monitor this issue.

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