When MPs allegedly behave badly, justice pays little part in the consequences

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Fuelled by overexposure, I developed a rather phlegmatic attitude towards misbehaving politicians during my time working at Parliament House in Canberra. It was only when I was invited to give evidence in Kate Jenkins’ review into the culture at Parliament House that I realised how jaded I had become.

Thankfully, hundreds of witnesses shared their allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual assault in federal parliament, forcing the parliament to act. Yet, little has been done to formalise the complaint process and improve workplace safety on Spring Street, which is no less hazardous.

Daniel Andrews has poured cold water on Will Fowles’ hopes of returning to Labor.Credit: The Age

Over the weekend, Labor MP Will Fowles was accused of a “serious assault” and referred to police by Premier Daniel Andrews’ office. Andrews said the government was informed about an alleged incident and spent several days investigating the matter before asking (AKA insisting) Fowles to stand aside.

There is one problem here: Fowles rejects the allegation. “It is not true. There was no assault,” he says.

The alleged victim hasn’t made a police complaint, nor has the Labor Party received a formal complaint about the Ringwood MP’s behaviour. Instead, the premier’s office conducted a probe before asking Fowles to resign from the parliamentary Labor team. Police have said they aren’t investigating because a complaint has not been made.

The Fowles drama – not his first, though the previous issue did not involve assault allegations – has highlighted a perennial problem plaguing Australian politics and one that Victoria has done little to address; what do we do with politicians who have allegedly misbehaved, particularly when they deny the allegations.

Recently, Spring Street has done its best to prove it’s just as dysfunctional as Canberra, with politicians from the two major parties facing varying allegations of bullying, assault or alcohol-fuelled idiocy.

Given alcohol appears to be a key factor in several of these cases, one suggestion I heard this week was to close the parliamentary bar.

Canberra did this years ago, by transforming the parliamentary waterhole into a childcare centre. But the wave of revelations that continue to flow from the national parliament suggests the absence of a bar has done little to curb bad behaviour.

While there is a long history of politicians being a protected species, thankfully attitudes have started to shift. Whether guided by a moral compass or fear of a backlash, political leaders have started taking a tougher stance when their own MPs are accused of wrongdoing. But often these decisions are made in the shadows, without any evidentiary rules, natural justice, legal rigour or transparency.

Ringwood MP Will Fowles has resigned from the parliamentary Labor Party.Credit: Facebook

In 2022, when then-opposition leader Matthew Guy and the Liberal head office were informed that the Department of Parliamentary Services had launched an investigation into Liberal MP Neal Burgess, he remained in the parliamentary team but was banned from attending party events. This wasn’t disclosed to the public, until a journalist asked some questions. The findings of a subsequent investigation into Burgess’ behaviour were not made public.

It turns out Guy had also been kept in the dark when parliament made the highly unusual decision to ban one of his MPs from the parliamentary precinct.

Whether you’re concerned about the presumption of innocence and due legal process, or by the culture of cover-ups and embedded power imbalances in parliaments, it’s clear that these “processes” – as in the case of the Fowles accusations – are inconsistent and insufficient.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

During the last parliament, taxpayers footed the bill for law firm Lander & Rogers to review the laws and policies applied to the workplace behaviour of state MPs.

In short, it found that while most parliamentary staff are protected against – and prohibited from – engaging in unsafe and inappropriate workplace behaviour including bullying, harassment, and victimisation, MPs, who are not “employees”, were exempt.

Armed with this knowledge, a bipartisan team of MPs recommended appointing “conduct officers” to manage complaints and, if necessary, escalate any issues to a new Workplace Behaviour Commissioner, ideally a retired judge.

The commissioner would be tasked with dismissing frivolous or vexatious complaints, and escalating more serious allegations to WorkSafe Victoria or Victoria Police.

It was proposed that the commissioner would provide de-identified statistics each year to shine a light on the culture of Spring Street. At the time, then-speaker Colin Brooks spruiked that Victoria could become one of the first jurisdictions in the world to introduce such a system.

Instead, 2½ years later, an MP’s career is in tatters following a secret two-day probe by an unknown member of the premier’s office. Short of going to the police, there was no independent avenue where the alleged victim could make a formal workplace complaint and no commissioner to recommend sanctions.

The Fowles case is further proof that the processes around Victorian politicians’ alleged misbehaviour in the workplace are wholly inadequate, not just for the victim, but also for the accused.

Annika Smethurst is state political editor.

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