About the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service
The PWSS was established on 23 September 2021 under the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 as a function of the Commissioner.
The PWSS is independent of executive government, of the political parties, and of the individual employing parliamentarians of MOP(S) Act employees. As an independent statutory office holder, the Commissioner provides oversight of the PWSS. The Commissioner is not subject to direction by, or on behalf of, government in the performance of their functions. It has oversight over the PWSS but is not involved in its day-to-day operations.
On 30 November 2021, the Australian Human Rights Commission published Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces which recommended expanding the PWSS to better support the entire CPW.
On 12 April 2022, the PWSS was expanded and now provides everyone who works or volunteers in a CPW with independent and confidential advice, support services and pathways to resolve workplace conflict.
While the PWSS is a function of the Parliamentary Service Commissioner (PSC), the Australian Public Service Commission provides it with some enabling services. The PWSS staff are employed under the Public Service Act 1999.
Statutory functions and responsibilities
The PWSS is underpinned by a determination made by the Presiding Officers under the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 (Parliamentary Service Determination 2013, Clause 112B), which confers a function on the Commissioner:
- to establish and maintain a mechanism for:
- reviewing, and making recommendations in relation to, complaints about serious incidents or misconduct involving MOP(S) Act employees, parliamentarians, or both, in the course of their work; and
- providing support to current or former Commonwealth parliamentary workplace participants in relation to such serious incidents or misconduct and other matters relating to work health and safety in the course of performing duties in a Commonwealth parliamentary workplace or in the course of performing duties as a Commonwealth parliamentary workplace participant;
- to provide for education of current Commonwealth parliamentary workplace participants, and for informing current or former Commonwealth parliamentary workplace participants, in relation to:
- the mechanism; and
- serious incidents or misconduct involving MOP(S) Act employees, parliamentarians, or both, in the course of their work; and
- other matters relating to work health and safety in the course of performing duties in a Commonwealth parliamentary workplace or in the course of performing duties as a Commonwealth parliamentary workplace participant;
- to take steps to assure the independence, confidentiality and quality of the practices and processes that comprise the mechanism or relate to the provision of information;
- if a complaint is upheld following review— to receive a report of the review;
- if a report of a review makes recommendations to a parliamentarian—to engage with the parliamentarian in relation to implementing the recommendations;
- if recommendations made to a parliamentarian are not implemented—to refer the report to the relevant Presiding Officer, in accordance with any procedure that applies under the mechanism (which, if the relevant House of the Parliament has determined a procedure, must be the procedure determined by that House).
Performance and outcomes
This was the foundational year for the PWSS. In 2021–22, much time and effort were invested in establishing the PWSS as a trusted independent and confidential support service of high calibre.
It takes time for new entities to be trusted. Early months were spent establishing the PWSS as a service within the CPW, testing and refining processes and procedures to ensure they suit its operating environment.
There has been immense goodwill from leaders on all sides of the political spectrum, and from agencies already established within the CPW support ecosystem.
To raise awareness, the PWSS has engaged in a comprehensive outreach engagement program involving the briefing of parliamentarians and/or their chiefs of staff, on its role and services.
Following its April 2022 expansion, the PWSS published comprehensive updates on its website, and started a broad stakeholder awareness campaign targeting CPW participants to ensure awareness of its expanded scope.
These activities included engaging with stakeholders including parliamentary departments, Parliamentary Budget Office, Office for Staffing Support, Departmental Liaison Officer Network, COMCAR drivers, relevant unions, and a range of contractors who work within the parliamentary precincts.
In addition, the PWSS was actively involved in the induction of the 47th Parliament, meeting with new parliamentarians and MOP(S) Act employees. These meetings were conducted both face-to- face, and face-to-screen with parliamentarians from both houses of parliament, and with MOP(S) Act employees based around the country.
While the PWSS was initially established in the aftermath of allegations of a sexual assault occurring in Australian Parliament House, most complaints it received during the reporting year related to allegations of bullying or workplace conflict. These type of complaints often stem from poor communication, lack of clarity around and shared understanding of workplace expectations, managers ill-prepared for difficult conversations, and the absence of operational hygiene in managing an office.
The support provided by the PWSS is intentionally far-reaching and covers prevention, early intervention, local resolution or mediation of issues. Support includes counselling, crisis intervention, psychoeducation, and strategies.
Topics include managing wellbeing, scaffolding individuals on how to raise concerns with supervisors and for supervisors to raise concerns with staff. Other topics include support for team discussions on recalibrating ways of working in an office.
The PWSS employs a team of experienced case coordinators with backgrounds in support, social work and/or counselling. Coordinators are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. Table 1 details the number of cases the PWSS managed in 2021–22.
|Number of cases||121|
Reason for contacting the PWSS
*Other includes when the reason for contacting the PWSS was not disclosed and where the contact was summarised as a request for information on the role and services the PWSS provided.
If a complaint cannot be resolved, the PWSS may start an independent workplace review, where appropriate (Figure 1). Such a review is only available if the:
- parties are current or former parliamentarians or MOP(S) Act employees at the time of the alleged conduct
- alleged conduct had the requisite link to the workplace
- complaint relates to a serious incident, or misconduct, or conduct that amounts to a work health and safety risk
- likelihood that a review will result in a finding given the age of the incident and what recommendations are possible.
Consistent with the central tenets of the PWSS, independent reviewers are required to conduct workplace reviews in a trauma-informed way.
All reviewers are briefed on trauma-informed interviewing and investigation as part of their PWSS on-boarding.
Workplace reviews will consider if there has been a breach of workplace obligations and make findings on the balance of probabilities. The review process has been designed to be transparent and fair, with all parties given the opportunity to be interviewed and put forward their version of events.
It is expected that the parliamentarian will act on review recommendations, whether in respect of their employee or themselves. Failure to act results in the Commissioner referring the report to the relevant Presiding Officer, who then refers it to the Privileges Committee for appropriate consideration.
Table 2: Number of workplace reviews or investigations commissioned by the PWSS in 2021–22
|Number of workplace reviews or investigations commissioned by the PWSS||0|
The PWSS provides education which gives CPW participants customised training and development based on identified trends within parliamentary workplaces. This is to build the capability across the CPW to support the strengthening of a safe and respectful parliamentary workplace.
As part of this education, the PWSS can review and advise on processes and documentation contained within a parliamentary workplace.
Providing such advice is in the interest of improving systems in place in parliament.
Fictional Education Function case study
An office defined as a CPW contacts the PWSS, reporting that they are interacting with some distressed or angry people, and these interactions are having a negative impact on office staff. The PWSS provides support to impacted employees, and suggests the whole office participate in a half-hour workshop to learn strategies for de-escalating these types of situations.
The PWSS acknowledged there is no magic bullet for dealing with someone experiencing heightened emotions, however, the workshop better equipped the team to respond to escalated constituents in the future and identify and manage the impacts of vicarious actions.
The year ahead
The year ahead is set to be another compelling 12 months for the PWSS, full of challenges and change. Recommendation 11 from Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces called for the establishment of an Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture. After consulting with those affected, the Australian Government decided to establish this new human resources entity as an independent statutory agency, to be called the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service (PWSS) (subject to the passage of relevant legislation).
The new PWSS will be led by a Chief Executive Officer and accountable Board. It will integrate the functions and staff of the existing PWSS except for the workplace review function which is expected to transition to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission (to be established). The new PWSS will perform the human resource-related functions currently performed by the Ministerial and Parliamentary Services Division of the Department of Finance. It will support parliamentarians and their staff to drive cultural change. The new PWSS will be supported by a consultative and advisory body made up of a membership of external experts, parliamentarians (multi-party) and MOP(S) Act staff.
The legislation is expected to be introduced in early 2023, with the new entity to begin mid-year. Work has already started on bringing together these functions and the PWSS is collaborating with the Parliamentary Service Commissioner, Departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Finance on the many and varied challenges associated with such significant change.