We have asked a lot of our staff this year.
I routinely note that the department is nothing without its people: their knowledge, their skills, their dedication. But their efforts this year have been nothing short of extraordinary.
The year was dominated by the need for the Senate, like other institutions, to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for the department to devise new ways of working. Procedural, practical and logistical changes were needed to enable the Senate and parliamentary committees to maintain their essential operations, and the changes have themselves been dynamic; shifting and evolving along with public health advice.
Some of these were described in last year’s review: physical and procedural changes on the floor of the Senate to accommodate social distancing requirements; videoconferences and hybrid hearings as the predominant means for committees to take evidence; rapid adjustment to staff working from home, requiring new approaches to connecting and collaborating on our work; a reconfiguration of our education programs to reach dispersed classes online.
Our operations this year required frequent communication between the Presiding Officers, parliamentary staff and health officials to develop and implement COVID-safe arrangements. The Black Rod’s Office assumed a new function of managing arrangements recommended in public health advice, although implementation was shared by staff across the department. At its simplest that advice came down to two things: reduce the risk that someone might bring the virus into the building and reduce the risk of transmission in case it did get in. Between travel restrictions, borders closures and quarantine and testing regimes, however, the settings for each sitting fortnight were different. These factors also constrained committee travel, so that the inquiry plans had to be made and remade as physical, then hybrid, then virtual hearings; shifting rapidly on occasion as ‘snap’ lockdowns affected every state and territory.
To give some examples, the degree of difficulty for our largest logistical exercise – the delayed Budget estimates round held in October 2020 – was amplified by the need to run four simultaneous videoconferences for senators and witnesses in parallel with each day’s ‘physical’ proceedings. Planning involved the development of detailed COVID-safe protocols for the senators, staff and witnesses attending in person, together with resources to manage hundreds of virtual witnesses each day. Despite these complications, the fortnight proceeded with barely a hitch.
As another example, the possibility of introducing a remote element to Senate proceedings was first mooted in the early days of the pandemic, and implemented in August 2020 and as needed since. There were few glitches, demonstrating perhaps how familiar senators and their staff were with the system, given its intensive use for committees. In the background, however, new arrangements were needed to support senators using the facility and to ensure they had access to the documents that underpin the Senate’s work, and to advice and support on procedural and legislative matters.
Our capacity to support these and other changes has once again demonstrated the resilience and flexibility of the department and its people. This has particularly been the case while physical access to Parliament House was limited to essential staff, complicating the ordinary business of communicating and collaborating that sits at the heart of much of our work.
As I write this, public health orders continue to require staff to work at home where practical, but the promise of a gradual return to 'the office' is on the horizon. The most recent sittings were held under lockdown, with a fraction of our staff in the building, and with everyone leaning heavily on the lessons of the past year. Despite the challenges, our support for the Senate and its committees, and for senators involved in their proceedings, has been virtually seamless.
I remain incredibly grateful to our staff for achieving this outcome, and also acknowledge that their capacity to work in this manner is not endless. It will be a relief for many to return to business as usual, whatever that may look like in the near future, and to reconnect with their colleagues and teams.
Employment and workplace arrangements
Like so many others, our staff found media reports of a sexual assault in Parliament House in 2019 particularly confronting. When the allegations were reported in February this year we made sure staff were aware of the support available to them, including confidential support and counselling through our employee assistance program.
Quite apart from the harrowing nature of the allegations, the reports raised concerns about the employment arrangements for staff in political offices, sparking two reviews into parliament as a workplace.
The employment arrangements and workplace policies that apply in the Senate department are very different. The legal framework is described in our Workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination policy, which spells out the department’s commitment to providing a safe work environment, free of bullying, harassment and discrimination. We had revised that policy in October 2020; the result of extensive consultation with staff at all levels across the department, flowing from the development of the Health and Well-being Strategy discussed in this review two years ago. Without for a moment equating the behaviours dealt with in that policy with the allegations, the work by our Workplace Consultative Committee, Human Resources team and program managers to update that policy established a stronger shared understanding of how the department would support staff and supervisors to deal with situations when they arise.
The policy commits the department to dealing with allegations of improper behaviour, no matter the source, including where it involves parliamentarians or their staff. The policy also provides a framework to support staff and supervisors dealing with situations in which bullying, harassment or discrimination might arise, by setting behavioural and process expectations.
The first of the reviews sparked by the allegations, conducted by a Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, recommended interim arrangements for an independent complaints mechanism for serious incidents involving parliamentarians and their staff, as well as an education and awareness program. Those recommendations are currently being implemented.
The second review, being undertaken by Commissioner Kate Jenkins under the auspices of the Human Rights Commission, is due to report in November 2021.
That review is considering drivers in parliamentary workplaces that may increase the risk of workplace bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault, and barriers to reporting and responding to such conduct. Again, it has a clear focus on parliamentarians and their staff, and on perceived inadequacies in the employment and workplace arrangements for staff employed by parliamentarians. While our employment and workplace arrangements are very different, no doubt the review’s findings will indicate ways we can further strengthen our policies and procedures for preventing and addressing workplace bullying and harassment.
The department has contributed to the review in a number of ways, including by encouraging our staff to make submissions or attend interviews, and facilitating their participation in surveys and focus groups. We responded to a series of requests for information, focusing on the demographics of our workforce, our – thankfully limited – experience with complaints of inappropriate conduct, and the training available to support staff to operate in our unique environment. With the other parliamentary departments we made a submission about the employment and workplace arrangements that apply across the Parliamentary Service, while I made a submission on behalf of the department highlighting our sustained engagement with staff about navigating the parliamentary environment.
In October and November of 2020 staff participated in the annual Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) census, the results of which were published in March this year. It was gratifying that the results were overwhelmingly positive and compared favourably to the APS overall, at the same time providing something of a counter to the narrative of a singular ‘toxic culture’ at Parliament House. Moreover, they paint the picture of an engaged and motivated workforce, with a strong connection to the department and our purpose. Specific strengths noted include:
- Overall job satisfaction received a positive response score of 91%—16% higher than the APS overall and an improvement of 4% compared to 2019;
- Recommending the department as a good place to work received 92% positive response—23% higher than the APS average and 2% higher than 2019.
- Workgroup skill, knowledge and the capability to perform well received a positive response score of 98%—17% higher than the APS overall and an improvement of 14% compared to 2019;
- Effective communication from your SES received a positive response score of 84%—16% higher than the APS overall and a 4% improvement on 2019.
Overall the results were very positive, but we also recognised areas for improvement, including the need for further refinement and communication of our policies around inappropriate behaviour. In providing the results to staff I noted that this would remain an important focus for the department, particularly against the backdrop of the Jenkins review.
The headline for our performance report this year records that the department successfully achieved its purpose of facilitating and supporting all meetings required under decisions of the Senate and its committees, including managing the continuing disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, we provided comprehensive, timely and high-quality support to senators, the Senate and committees, as well as prompt and accurate procedural advice and legislative support.
There were slightly fewer sittings than expected – 48 sitting days – reflecting the decision to set aside the first fortnight scheduled for August 2020 on public health advice. However, indicators of procedural and legislative activity were generally consistent with or above those seen in recent years. For instance, the Parliament passed 157 bills, compared with 153 and 148 in the previous two years. Staff in the Table Office and Procedure Office produced more than 1,800 procedural scripts for senators to use in the chamber – around 38 per day, again comparable with recent years, while 740 legislative amendments were drafted by the Procedure Office and circulated in the Senate, somewhat more than the 608 reported last year.
By contrast, many indicators of committee activity were well up on the previous reporting period. In particular, secretariat staff processed around 10,500 submissions, 3,000 more than last year and nearly twice as many as in 2018–19. Committees heard from 7,500 witnesses in the course of an astonishing 395 hearings; a record, dwarfing the 225 and 290 hearings secretariats organised in the past two years. Partly this reflected the deferral of the 2020–21 Budget estimates round until October 2020, which fed into a record 95 estimates hearings held during the year. I note again the significant logistical challenges involved in arranging so many hearings, particularly in virtual and hybrid modes, and ensuring they run smoothly.
These and other indicators demonstrate that the elevated levels of committee activity seen in recent years continued, as did the practice of establishing and maintaining more select committees, with the department supporting 11 Senate select committees and two joint select committees during the year.
Despite the considerable workload, direct feedback from senators continued to indicate high levels of satisfaction, including via a survey of satisfaction with services to committees undertaken through the Chairs’ Committee, and another on senators services provided through the Black Rod’s Office. These are detailed in the annual performance statements, beginning on p. 15, and in the subsequent parts of the performance report, detailing the activities and achievements of each office.
Our Corporate Plan charts our expectations for the year ahead. The final year of the 46th Parliament should see a lull in legislative and committee activity over the election period before ramping up again with the start of a new parliament. The department uses these periods to place particular focus upon staff learning and development and to update the manuals which capture the institutional practice and knowledge which guide our work. The opening of a new parliament places high demands on several areas of the department in relation to the induction of new senators and support to senators who are taking on new roles as well as the significant logistical undertaking associated with the opening of a new Parliament.
Our work to refocus our parliamentary education programs to include more web resources for teachers and virtual outreach to students was accelerated by the pandemic. While the number of onsite programs for visiting students has rebounded during this year – albeit sporadically due to changeable travel restrictions – we will continue to develop additional online resources and programs; accessible to all students and teachers.
As I noted last year, the effective response to the pandemic required close collaboration with our parliamentary colleagues, particularly the ICT and broadcasting teams in the Department of Parliamentary Services. We aim to capitalise on these closer working relationships to deliver improvements to the technological support provided to the Senate and committees. A shared challenge that has emerged in recent years involves incorporating burgeoning cyber security requirements into the planning and delivery of ICT projects, including projects to upgrade the applications that support the core work of the department. This has particularly affected some of our legacy systems, including those used to compile and publish committee reports. There has been welcome momentum in resolving these issues – despite the market-wide difficulty in recruiting and retaining the necessary staff – and we look forward to their resolution over the coming reporting period.
My thanks, as always, to colleagues across the Parliamentary Service. The Clerk of the House of Representatives, Claressa Surtees, has been instrumental in ensuring we share our respective pandemic experiences with our counterparts in state and territory parliaments. There have been numerous challenges for Rob Stefanic and his team, particularly in leading critical elements of the response to the pandemic by the parliamentary service. More broadly, I appreciate his commitment to embedding genuine collaboration between the parliamentary departments in undertaking our work. We also welcomed a new Parliamentary Budget Officer this year, in Stein Helgeby, who has engaged with us in good humour.
As I have often noted, the specialist advice and support the department provides relies most fundamentally on our capacity to recruit well and support the development and well-being of our staff. The structural changes we have implemented over the last five years aimed to refocus the department on its core functions of supporting the meetings of the Senate and parliamentary committees. Those efforts are producing a larger pool of officers developing the specialist secretariat and advisory skills the department will require in the future. Looking beyond the next twelve months, this investment in the future capability of the department remains my key priority.
Circling back to where I started, I note the President’s remarks to the Finance and Public Administration estimates hearing in October 2020, noting that our work supporting the Senate and committees has required ‘flexibility; ingenuity; determination, in some cases; and cooperation across departments and agencies in an often rapidly evolving and unpredictable environment.’
What a privilege it is to lead such a flexible, ingenious and determined team.
Clerk of the Senate