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Lidia Thorpe says docking MPs pay for misbehaviour "just a slap on the wrist"

Dechlan Brennan -

Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe says a proposal to dock politicians' pay up to five per cent for misbehaviour in Parliament, revealed in a leaked document, would amount to barely a slap on the wrist.

First reported in The Age, the document revealed the potential powers of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission (IPSC), which has been in the works for more than two years.

The alleged misbehaviour of MPs and staffers in federal parliament led to Kate Jenkins' Set the Standard report, which originally called for an oversight body to be implemented within 12 months of its release in November 2021, but has now been pushed back to 1 October 2024.

Senator Thorpe has been vocal in her criticism of the slow roll out of the new watchdog, arguing alleged misbehaviour should have been dealt with "a long time ago".

On Wednesday, the Senator said whilst she couldn't comment too specifically on the leaked documents, she had some concerns of what she had seen and read so far.

"This framework needs to be looked at very closely – it's already problematic that politicians are designing their own accountability processes," she said.

"There's a big risk here that we get another toothless body that operates in the dark and does nothing to drive real change."

Last year Senator Thorpe used parliamentary privilege to allege Liberal Senator David Van of "inappropriately" touching her in a stairwell at Parliament House. She then withdrew her claims due to parliamentary protocol before making another statement the next day that did not name Senator Van.

Senator Van was removed from the Liberal Party room after further allegations emerged but has repeatedly denied the claims against him.

The parliamentary workplace support service (PWSS) – with limited actual powers - has been placed in interim charge of overseeing conduct in parliament. The PWSS has not made any public comment on the matter concerning Senators Thorpe and Van, which Thorpe previously said she found "frustrating and... retraumatising".

On Wednesday, the Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman from Victoria said it was important the IPSC could operate in a "transparent way."

However, leaked reports that said the commission would also have the power to enforce confidentiality agreements. Senator Thorpe argued this could reduce the watchdog to "another toothless body that operates in the dark and does nothing to drive real change".

"Confidentiality agreements must not be used to silence victims. Any top-down restrictions on the victims of misconduct is incredibly problematic," she said.

"It's also concerning that this document indicates that IPSC documents would be exempt from the FOI Act [Freedom of Information]. Accountability should mean transparency.

"This is about accountability – we need to ensure that this new system doesn't just quietly dole out weak penalties behind closed doors, while keeping the public in the dark about the behaviour of the politicians they've elected."

Independent MP Kylea Tink also expressed concern about making complainants sign confidentiality agreements, arguing a democracy worked "strongest when it's based on transparency and accountability".

Coalition MPs have already started to criticise proposed changes, with Liberal backbencher Garth Hamilton labelling it unnecessary.

"A free and independent press coupled with a healthy democracy have proven to be far better guardrails than the hidden hands of an unelected bureaucracy. But whatever, let the purge begin. What could possibly go wrong?" he said, as reported by The Age.

However, Senator Thorpe said the taxpayer deserved to know how their representatives were behaving at work, saying a proposal for pay deduction was a relatively minor punishment.

"2-5 per cent of a parliamentarian's salary seems too low given they are paid so much – it's barely a slap on the wrist," she said.

"Perhaps it's a fair starting point, but it should be increased with repeated misconduct.

"Given under this framework it's up to a majority of the house and senate whether a politician faces sanction or suspension, it still may allow the big parties to provide cover for bad behaviour. Where these recommendations are made, they must be made publicly."

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