PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I rise to speak today on the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment on Workplace Bullying: we just want it to stop. As a member of the committee, I will make some brief comments on it and note that the chair of that committee is also in the chamber at the moment, having just stepped down as the acting Deputy Speaker.
This was an important inquiry dealing with a very sensitive and important topic. The prevalence of workplace bullying is not known—there is no statistical data to assess exactly how prevalent it is. Regardless of the precise number, we know that it is too prevalent. We know that it does occur, it occurs too often, in too many work places and that more needs to be done to stamp it out.
We also know that it can have very serious consequences on the individuals concerned. For many individuals, being the subject of persistent workplace bullying can be completely debilitating on them and their families, on their social life and on their general wellbeing.
I will quote just one or two of the people who explained their situations to the committee. One woman said:
As a result of my combined two experiences I have given up my career as a research scientist. I am too afraid to go back and put myself in those situations again. I used to think of myself as a strong and resilient person but the stress that was caused by my situation, the fear of losing my job and my career, had an extreme impact on me. I never expected to become a target of bullying.
There were many other examples of people who came before the committee to talk about their situation and the impact that it had on them, their broader life and sometimes on their family.
Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker Thomson, I am a member from Victoria. We are very aware of an absolutely tragic case in Victoria of workplace bullying. It concerned Brodie Panlock. She was a 19-year-old woman who suffered sustained ongoing bullying at a café in Hawthorn, in Melbourne, and tragically she took her own life as a result of that bullying. That case is a very sad one but it has brought to the fore, in Victoria at least and in part around Australia, the seriousness of this type of behaviour—that someone can take their life as a result of bullying which occurs in the workplace. I commend Mr Baillieu, the Premier in Victoria, for taking very strong action in response to that by putting in place what is now known as ‘Brodie’s Law’. It applies in Victoria and leads to far more serious penalties applying to individuals who bully people on an ongoing basis.
That is the seriousness of the matter, but the other contextual element is that it is a very difficult subject matter to regulate against. We say that because in some respects workplace bullying can be defined differently by different people and it often has a subjective element to it. In that regard it is different to other workplace safety issues. In the committee we often heard the analogy of not having a safeguard on a machine as being the case for not having proper regulations for workplace bullying.
But in some respects it is not the right analogy, because whereas you can easily see that a safeguard is not in place and easily see that that lack of safeguard has caused an injury, it is more difficult in relation to workplace bullying, where often the bullying may occur without any witnesses—it may be things that are said from one person to another. In some instances, what one person says may be seen by some as an ordinary managerial disciplinary action but by others as bullying. That is the contextual difficulty of this subject matter. Many of the employer organisations raised that contextual difficulty in that inquiry.
The Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce was one such organisation. It said:
It is a common experience for VACC members that employees claim to have been bullied when they have actually been either disciplined or just asked to get on with their work. One VACC member reported an employee in tears because he had been asked to stop distracting other workers and return to his workstation. The worker complained to the human resources manager that he had been bullied.
This is the difficult contextual element of this topic. Yes, it is deadly serious. Bullying should not occur anywhere. But it is exceptionally difficult to define in regulations. That is the difficult contextual element that we had to deal with as a committee in proposing our recommendations.
Within that context, however, there was a lot of goodwill within the committee to try to come together and present a unified report. In many instances, the committee has come to agreement. There are many recommendations that the coalition members and the Labor members all agree on. Some of that agreement was around, for example, the general discussion about the seriousness of the topic and the need to do more. The committee was concerned about the need for national definitions and codes of practice so that we can all have greater clarity about what bullying actually is so that employers and employees can have some sensible guidelines to adhere to. We all agreed that there is a need for greater services for both employers and employees so that they can get assistance and share best practice. We all agreed that we need better educational materials for employees and employers—particularly for employers—so that best practices can be shared across enterprises. And particularly for smaller enterprises, which are already dealing with so many other issues in their workplaces. We also agreed on the need for accredited training programs in this particular field.
The coalition members are broadly in agreement with the government members on many if not most of the recommendations. But we do have some disagreements. Some of them are quite significant. I would like to flag those. We disagree not because we think the topic is any less serious; to the contrary, we share the government’s view that this is a very serious topic that can have deadly consequences. But the coalition members on the committee fundamentally believe that the best way to address workplace bullying is not to introduce inflexible compliance regimes but to create circumstances in which employers see the compliance regimes and the regulations as a way to improve their overall organisation, giving them some flexibility to adapt and share best practices. That will give them a direct interest in improving their practices.
Our concern is that if we are overly prescriptive smaller organisations particularly will see this as a box-ticking exercise rather than see that that there is a genuine need to try address this serious issue in their workforce. We had submissions and evidence in relation to this. If it becomes overly burdensome and is added to all of the other regulations that businesses have to deal with, it becomes a box-ticking exercise rather than something that they should be serious concerned about for the productivity of their business.
That is, if you like, one of the philosophical differences that we had with the government members.
There were also several recommendations that we did not precisely agree on with the government members. One of them concerned the immediate support for the draft code of practice that was put forward. We support the concept of having a code of practice and defining more clearly for employers and employees what bullying means. We are concerned, however, that we do not endorse the draft code of practice before it is finalised with the state and territory governments. We are particularly concerned because the draft code of practice seems to contain some elements that do not make sense, in our view. I point out some of them for example. The draft code of practice, which is public, lists not providing enough work as a form of indirect bullying, along with setting time lines that are difficult to achieve. The draft code also lists eye-rolling responses that might diminish a person’s dignity as a form of possible bullying.
Some of these, we think, are very subjective in their nature. If we are starting to suggest that, if someone rolls their eyes in a workplace, it constitutes bullying, I think we need to seriously examine that. We do not want to create a situation where workers see someone rolling their eyes and immediately run off to the regulator to put in a bullying claim. I think that diminishes the seriousness of real bullying that does occur in the workplace. So, again, we are in favour of a code of practice; we believe that we need one; but we do not think the current draft is right and we think that we need to have it properly fixed before we give it this parliament’s formal endorsement.
There were some other recommendations which we have some disagreements with. Many are quibbles rather than direct disagreements. They concern the establishment of new bureaucracies where we think that, arguably, we do not need a new bureaucracy but that particular function could be done inside an existing bureaucracy such as Fair Work Australia or one of the employer organisations. So we express our concern about those matters in our dissenting report.
With recommendation 10 we had some concerns about how you go about promoting the economic benefits and positive working experience of having a workplace which is free from bullying. Again, the intent is good, but the detail of the recommendation says that this should be done through the new Centre for Workplace Leadership, which we had some concerns about. We think this is potentially a $12 million white elephant, so we do not think recommending that this centre does that is the right way to go; rather, employer organisations, the ones that are dealing with businesses on a daily basis, are the ones that should be doing it. So we make some suggestions in our dissenting report which we think would improve those recommendations.
In closing, I would like to reiterate the seriousness of this matter. While the coalition have not agreed with every recommendation of the government in this report, we do not for a moment think that the topic is any less serious than do government members. We have a slightly different philosophical approach to tackling the issue and we want to ensure that, where possible, government bureaucracy is minimised and businesses can be as free as possible to get on with their job. But, ultimately, we do want to see better workforce practices where people can be free of bullying. We need to stamp it out and we think the approach that we have outlined is the better way to go about it.