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Parliament's go-slow on harassment report recommendations

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South Australia’s new Equal Opportunity Commissioner says she “hopes” that a parliamentary committee set up in March to act on recommendations arising from a damning review into sexual and other harassment inside Parliament House will respond before the end of the year.

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In her first annual report, tabled in parliament this week, Equal Opportunity Commissioner Jodeen Carney said if it didn’t implement recommendations made in her office’s report, a new Parliament after the March election would need to pass another motion.

The committee was set up in March in response to the Equal Opportunity Commission’s review into harassment in state parliament, which uncovered a “rotten” and “toxic” workplace culture where women were routinely made to feel like “second class citizens” and felt pressured to remain silent when they experienced sexual harassment and assault.

The review, led by then acting Commissioner Emily Strickland, found that over 27 per cent of South Australian MPs or their staffers – the majority of whom were women – had experienced sexual harassment at least once at work.

Strickland made 16 recommendations to stamp out workplace harassment in state parliament, including the adoption of a MP code of conduct, but so far, the majority are yet to be implemented, with the committee set up to examine the recommendations having only met three times since March.

“I hope the committee will deliver a response with a plan of action before the end of the year,” Carney wrote in her report.

“If it fails to do so, the motion passed by the current Parliament in respect of the review should be introduced when a new Parliament convenes next year.”

Meanwhile, Carney reported “focussed and impressive” progress from the legal profession responding to recommendations her office made in a separate report into harassment in that industry in April.

She wrote that since the report into the legal profession was handed down, the industry had demonstrated a “determination to ‘turn the ship around’” by publishing resources and hosting webinars.

But she wrote “progress in respect of the Parliamentary review provides less cause for optimism”.

“The review’s report was provided to the Presiding Officers of both Houses in February this year.

“A Parliamentary Committee was established in mid-March to inquire into and report on recommendations, and to draft a code of conduct. It’s first meeting occurred in June.”

The delay responding to the report’s recommendations comes after Parliament stalled reaching a decision to commission the research.

The report was supposed to be handed down in August last year, but the Equal Opportunity Commission only started its investigation in November due to delays seeking permission from both houses of Parliament.

The Government initially opposed the inquiry taking place, with Treasurer Rob Lucas telling parliament in August that funding the $152,873 investigation would pose an “issue” for the budgets of the House of Assembly and Legislative Council.

But Attorney-General Vickie Chapman later told Parliament that the issue of workplace harassment needed to “come to a conclusion”.

Chapman appointed Carney – her former chief of staff – as Equal Opportunity Commissioner in April, sparking criticism of a “political appointment”.

Carney is a former leader of the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory and was a member of the Legislative Assembly for nine years until 2010.

Her appointment came six months after the previous Commissioner, Niki Vincent – with whom Chapman had traded public jibes over funding disputes – quit for a similar equal opportunity advocacy role in Victoria.

In her annual report, Carney wrote that she had made “various” administrative changes to the office “focussed on ensuring it operates within its budget, but also streamlining functions, improving data collection, and making efficiencies with respect to receipt of, and movement of complaints prior to conciliations”.

She wrote that disability discrimination continued to be the number one ground for a complaint to the Equal Opportunity Commission last financial year, as it had been for the past 12 years.

All up, the Commission accepted 111 complaints, of which 46 involved disability discrimination and 22 involved sexual harassment.

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