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ICAC proposes new way to tackle misbehaving MPs

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South Australia’s Judicial Conduct Commissioner should be handed the power to investigate MPs accused of misconduct, including sexual harassment, the state’s anti-corruption commissioner has recommended.

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Vanstone, who is both the state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption and Judicial Conduct Commissioner, has written to a joint parliamentary committee warning that the current process for reporting sexual harassment in the parliamentary workplace is “unsatisfactory”.

However, she has flagged her intention to quit the role as Judicial Conduct Commissioner, while maintaining her ICAC position.

The anti-corruption commissioner has recommended that SA Parliament adopt a code of conduct for MPs that explicitly bans parliamentarians from bullying or sexually harassing other members, parliamentary and departmental staff, and statutory officers.

But she warned that a code of conduct on its own was “symbolic only”, and an independent complaints process was also needed to ensure that victims are properly heard.

It follows the release of a damning Equal Opportunity Commission report into harassment in State Parliament, which revealed allegations of male MPs crossing the chamber to rub their legs against female MPs, a male MP putting his hand “really far up” a staffer’s skirt and a man exposing himself in front of his co-workers.

The report, published in March, found eight people reported being victims of sexual harassment in the last five years, with all the alleged incidents being perpetrated by either MPs or their staff.

According to the Equal Opportunity Commission, six alleged incidents of sexual harassment reported to her “might otherwise be considered assault”.

The report recommended that SA Parliament adopt a code of conduct for MPs that outlined a “clear and consistent policy that speaks to behavioural standards required in the parliamentary workplace”.

In response, MPs voted in March to establish a joint parliamentary committee tasked with closely examining the report’s recommendations.

The committee is yet to meet, but it has called for submissions from the public.

In her submission to the committee, Vanstone wrote that recent attempts to reform Parliament’s complaints processes, including amending the Equal Opportunity Act to make it unlawful for MPs to sexually harass other members, were “largely toothless”.

“I am of the view that an independent complaints process should be established to accompany a Code of Conduct. Without this, there is a risk that the Code will be symbolic only,” she wrote.

“In my opinion the Judicial Conduct Commissioner Act 2015 could be readily amended to encompass complaints against Members.”

Under current legislation, the Judicial Conduct Commissioner is tasked with receiving complaints about judicial officers and conducting preliminary examinations.

The Commissioner can then choose to dismiss the complaint, refer it to a jurisdictional head, recommend that the Attorney-General establish a judicial conduct panel to investigate the matter further or report it immediately to Parliament.

Vanstone wrote that there were several advantages to granting the Judicial Conduct Commissioner the power to investigate MPs, as both politicians and judicial officers have similar status and independence.

“The model provided by the Judicial Conduct Commissioner Act 2015 addresses most if not all of the deficits in the current system which discourage complainants,” she wrote.

“The framework to accommodate the proposed changes already exists and can be readily expanded.”

Vanstone also provided the committee with a draft MP code of conduct, which she said would “strengthen the State’s existing integrity framework and increase public trust in the Parliament as an institution”, as well as to “provide a yardstick against which conduct could be measured”.

“While Codes of Conduct for Members in other jurisdictions broadly address the required standards of conduct, most do not set out in any detail what behaviours in the workplace are unacceptable,” Vanstone wrote, noting that South Australia was the only state or territory jurisdiction in Australia without such a code.

“A Code of Conduct should prohibit sexual harassment.

“Including a definition of sexual harassment so as to expressly impugn such behaviour is desirable.”

Vanstone wrote that the code of conduct should apply to all MP workplaces, including parliamentary buildings and electorate offices, as well as community, sporting or social functions which MPs attend as representatives of their electors.

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Vanstone to quit Judicial Conduct Commissioner role

Vanstone noted in her submission that she had advised Attorney-General Vickie Chapman “some weeks ago” that she no longer wanted to be the state’s Judicial Conduct Commissioner.

She wrote that the roles of the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption and the Judicial Conduct Commissioner were not compatible – a view which she wrote was also shared by her predecessor, Bruce Lander.

“There is clear potential for embarrassment when application for warrants, or charges arising from an ICAC investigation are in court and come before a judicial officer who is or has been subject to examination by the Judicial Conduct Commissioner,” Vanstone wrote.

“The Attorney‐General told me she will accede to my request that I relinquish the Judicial Conduct Commissioner role at a convenient time.”

A spokesperson for Chapman confirmed she had accepted Vanstone’s recommendation to separate the roles and a replacement Judicial Conduct Commissioner would follow a full and proper process.

It comes after Vanstone investigated five complaints made by women working in the law accusing Magistrate Simon Milazzo of misconduct.

Vanstone has previously said that the complaints, which came from women who work in “various capacities at the courts”, span a period of about seven years, but she said the accused denied impropriety.

The complaints are now being investigated by the state’s first ever judicial conduct panel, following a recommendation by Vanstone.

That panel is tasked with investigating the complaints and reporting its findings back to Parliament.

It also has the power to recommend that the Governor permanently suspend Milazzo from office, if he is found guilty of misconduct.

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