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Federal Labor wants assault allegations to be handled by arms-length ALP officials

Katharine Murphy Political editor
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Allegations of sexual harassment, assault and bullying within the federal Labor party would be dealt with by officials outside parliament under a proposed national code of conduct that aims to encourage staffers to speak up.

The draft code, seen by Guardian Australia, would ensure alleged victims can access external advice – creating a degree of separation from their offices. It would also mandate compulsory training for Labor MPs, elected officials and senior staff to help professionalise human resources management in political offices.

The new process – which will go before Labor’s national executive on Friday – would include a reporting mechanism to capture anonymously the number of complaints made each year, how they were dealt with and any recommendations made.

Related: Man accused of raping Brittany Higgins in ministerial office returned to Parliament House

Party sources speaking on condition of anonymity say the draft code represents a first step in reforming complaint procedures, and the framework will be developed further over the coming months.

The people designated to receive complaints under the draft national code include the operations manager at the ALP’s national secretariat and the two convenors of the National Labor Women’s Network. They are Kay Densley, an official of the Community and Public Sector Union, and Dimity Paul, who works in the private sector.

The proposal would, for the first time, create a degree of separation for parliamentary staff who currently have to run the gauntlet of their own offices when making complaints. But the process would remain in-house and be managed through the organisational wing of the party.

Labor will also scope out whether it should establish a completely independent process for reporting complaints – a proposal flagged during the escalating political controversy around the management of a rape allegation by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.

Between now and June the ALP will look to harmonise the new national code with those already existing within the states to ensure all of the party’s procedures are updated.

Labor will have to also deal with the resourcing implications of funding mandatory training for MPs, officials and staff – and with compensating the designated complaints handlers.

The standards and procedures set out in the code will apply to all party members including MPs and senators, officials – both paid and unpaid – staff, contractors, volunteers “and to any person who attends an ALP gathering or event”.

The document says the standards in the code apply to “workplaces, after-hours work, campaign events, social functions convened by the ALP, election campaigns, meetings and conferences which ALP members, staff and other individuals attend as a result of party-related duties or involvement”.

The draft code currently states if there is a conflict between standards set out at the national and state level the state standards would prevail. But officials insist the objective will be to harmonise all procedures by June.

The code includes definitions of sexual harassment and bullying and states that where criminal conduct may have occurred “the complainant should be actively assisted in obtaining advice and assistance about medical, legal and other supports, from qualified independent victim support services”.

“With the complainant’s consent, the complaint should be referred to the police or other investigative agency,” the code states.

Related: There is a greater sense of male entitlement in Australia's parliament than in any workplace I have seen | Clare O'Neil

With the consent of complainants, the people designated under the code to handle complaints about bullying or sexual harassment should refer them to the national secretary.

The code acknowledges the responsibilities of bystanders to assist victims in making complaints and having them resolved. It sets out procedures for both informal and formal resolution of complaints, including non-criminal complaints.

If a complaint is made against the national secretary, or if there is another conflict of interest, “the national president will make a ruling on the conflict and then determine the most suitable national official who will facilitate the complaints process”.

The code makes it clear sanctions for breaches of the code range from counselling through to performance management, official warnings, demotion, suspension or expulsion.