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Lidia Thorpe criticises lack of progress on new Parliament watchdog

Dechlan Brennan -

Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe has criticised the slow roll out of a new watchdog to hold politicians in Canberra accountable for their behaviour, arguing alleged misbehaviour should have been dealt with “a long time ago".

It comes as the federal government finalises plans for a workplace body with teeth to punish parliamentarians for misconduct. 

The alleged behaviour of MPs and staffers in federal parliament led to Kate Jenkins’ Set the Standard report to lift the level of respect and safety within Parliament House, with one of the key recommendations being the creation of an enforcement body.

Originally envisioned to be operational within 12 months of the report being handed down in November 2021, it has now been pushed back to 1 October 2024 due to discussions from the political parties on the type of punishments parliamentarians should receive for breaches. 

Until this is implemented, the parliamentary workplace support service (PWSS) - with limited actual powers - has been placed in interim charge of overseeing conduct in parliament. 

Senator Thorpe, a Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman from Victoria, told Guardian Australia while she appreciated the PWSS has limited powers, the incidents raised should have been dealt with previously. 

“How are we expected to feel safe when we’re not seeing any action?” she said. 

Last year, Senator Thorpe used parliamentary privilege to allege fellow 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. 

"Yesterday I made remarks in relation to another senator,” Senator Thorpe said at the time. “I then had to withdraw them because the rules of the Senate do not allow you to speak about someone's character, only about something they have said.” 

"I experienced sexual comments and was inappropriately propositioned by powerful men. One man followed me and cornered me in a stairwell."

Senator Van was removed from the Liberal party room by Opposition leader Peter Dutton in the aftermath of the allegations. Mr Dutton referred the matter to the PWSS after “further allegations” were brought to his attention and acknowledged he was doing so without "making any judgement on… any individual's guilt or innocence".

Senator Van has repeatedly denied the claims against him.

The PWSS has not made any public comment on the matter.

Guardian Australia reported Senator Thorpe found the delays and lack of an outcome “frustrating and... retraumatising”.

“Why am I still dealing with [this] issue when it happened in the last government? It should have been resolved,” she said.

“I just want to be safe at work. I just want to fulfil my duty without inappropriate touching and inappropriate remarks from inappropriate men.”

Last month, Senator Thorpe’s former party colleague, Greens leader in the Senate Larissa Waters, criticised the implementations of Kate Jenkins’ report being more than two years overdue. 

“When former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins released the Set the Standard Report in 2021, the recommendations were intended to be fully implemented within 12 months - not 3 years,” Senator Waters said. 

“Establishing an independent, trauma-informed Parliamentary Workplace Support Service to support staff and MPs dealing with harassment and abuse has been a huge step forward, as has the adoption of long overdue draft codes of conduct for the parliamentary chambers, but without enforcement powers, they cannot solve the problem.

“We know that without real prospects that an MP will be sanctioned, staff are reluctant to come forward. Consequences are crucial.”

Senator Thorpe, who will retire from federal politics when her six-year term finishes, has previously called on the new parliamentary oversight body to be able to exclude misbehaving MPs from sitting weeks and dock their pay, in line with models from other Commonwealth nations.

In the UK, MPs can be forced to apologise to parliament, or in more serious cases, be suspended without pay, for poor behaviour.

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