The possibility of reforming the distribution of personnel in the Federal Parliament was lost
How should staff resources be allocated to parliamentarians to carry out their legislative and deliberative functions? Unfortunately, the recently published revision of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act fails to change the status quo on this key issue.
The MOPS Act review was the first in its 38 years of operation. This was done behind closed doors by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministry. The report was delivered to the Prime Minister and released on October 7, along with the news that the government has accepted all of its recommendations in principle.
Remarkably, Parliament has yet to play a formal role in reviewing the law under which parliamentary staff are employed. The government says it will work with the parliamentary leadership task force to drive “necessary” reforms to the law.
Currently, the Prime Minister has the power to allocate staff and determine the terms and conditions of employment of staff. This means that parliament has no role to play in the management and direction of the staff that support its members. The review recommends leaving this power structure intact.
While he suggests that the new independent human resources body consider principles that can inform staff allocations, these will not be binding on the PM.
The Prime Minister’s power to distribute staff numbers, not only for ministerial staff but for all parliamentarians, is anomalous compared to other countries and states, where they are determined by independent bodies. In Canada, for example, the House of Commons determines the resources needed to perform parliamentary functions.
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In the Australian Parliament, the allocation of non-statutory members of parliamentary staff has been closely tied to potential checks and balances status rather than parliamentary office. It fluctuated accordingly.
In 2010, crossbenchers holding the checks and balances in the House of Representatives negotiated for two additional parliamentary staffers, while crossbenchers in the Senate received only one. In 2013, that reversed, when the crossbenchers no longer held the balance of power in the lower house. In 2016, when the Turnbull government was re-elected with the narrowest of majorities, the staff assigned to crossbenchers in both chambers was increased to three, while the Morrison government increased it again to four.
The current reduction in Albanian government staffing for crossbenchers is clearly linked to their potential lack of checks and balances status in the House of Representatives. Reports that independent MPs are using crowdfunding to pay parliamentary staff indicate the extent of the problem.
The prime minister should only have authority over the staffing of ministers. In other countries and states, staff of legislators are employed under a different legal authority than staff of the executive.
The employment of parliamentary and electoral staff should fall within the competence of parliament. Since the Federal Parliament does not have this power in statute, it cannot currently determine staff assignments, set conditions, or enact consequences for staff in their workplaces. The review provided an opportunity to establish the appropriate authority for staffing under the act.
A comprehensive review of the MOPS Act was one of the recommendations of Gender Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in her landmark 2021 report on Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces, Set the Standard. Unfortunately, the long-awaited revision of the law failed to correct some of its fundamental shortcomings. These include not only the power of the Prime Minister to control the number and conditions of parliamentary staff, but also the power of parliamentarians in the working relationship with their staff.
Read more: Jenkins review contains 28 recommendations to fix toxic culture in parliament – will our leaders listen?
The Jenkins report found that the problems stem from the extreme power imbalance in parliamentary offices. He argued that professionalizing practices in these offices was key to creating safer workplaces. The MOPS Act review recommends that certain requirements be imposed on parliamentarians as employers. These include:
- recruit staff against job descriptions and justify their appointments
- consult the independent HR body before laying off staff in order to slow down the process
- establishing “employment principles” in law.
While these are useful changes, they do not include mandatory practices such as probation, induction, or performance appraisal. They also do not require vacancies to be advertised externally, which would bring more diversity to the parliamentary workplace. The review also does not recommend that the right to employ staff be tied to respect for professional practice as an employer.
There is currently great optimism about the implementation of the recommendations of the Jenkins report, as well as the work of the all-party task force on parliamentary leadership and the joint committee on parliamentary standards. The changes involve an interlocking set of new rules and institutions. They require mechanisms to set standards of behavior, hold people to account for their conduct and professionalize parliamentary work.
These changes are intended to address the issues of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault of staff revealed in the Jenkins report. The new institutional architecture is designed to try to prevent these forms of misconduct in the parliamentary workplace.
The MOPS Act review includes in-depth discussions. His recommendations would be an improvement. But it doesn’t go far enough in recommending changes to the problematic power imbalances exposed in the Jenkins report.
The review recommends no change to the Prime Minister’s undue power over all aspects of parliamentary staffing. Nor did it recommend that parliamentarians be duly accountable as employers for professional practices in their offices.
The fact that the PM’s own ministry conducted the MOPS review may explain why it does not recommend changes to the basic power structure in the law. This may be a missed opportunity for meaningful and meaningful reform.