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Submissions to independent inquiry on parliamentary workplace culture remain confidential

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Submissions by political staffers to an independent inquiry of parliamentary workplace culture will remain confidential under proposed legislation that passed the Senate today.

Both former and current staff have been pushing for assurances that their stories won’t be made public or accessible through freedom of information requests, particularly because the Senate does not sit next week.

Amendments to National Archives and freedom of information (FOI) laws passed unanimously in the Upper House and the legislation is expected to go to the House of Representatives next week.

“The participation of current and former staff in the independent review will be of paramount importance to bringing about the cultural and practical change that is necessary in our parliamentary workplace,” Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, a key player who helped set up the inquiry, said in a statement.

“We want all participants to feel supported and have confidence knowing that in sharing their experiences, their personal and sensitive information will be safeguarded and their privacy protected.”

Mr Birmingham said the legislation provides both current and former staff “the assurance that if they make a submission … that if they wish for their participation to remain confidential that it will remain so”.

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Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese yesterday warned Scott Morrison that victims of sexual violence will refuse to contribute to a review into Parliament’s workplace culture unless their privacy is guaranteed.

The Prime Minister announced an independent review into a toxic workplace culture in Parliament House, to be led by sex discrimination commission Kate Jenkins.

But concerns have been raised evidence may not be covered by parliamentary privilege, meaning it could be subject to freedom of information requests.

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Brittany Higgins has led a group of 70 current and former political figures and staffers in signing an open letter demanding the review be confidential.

Ms Higgins attracted national attention after she made a distressing rape allegation against a male colleague in a government minister’s office inside Parliament House in March 2019.

Since Ms Higgins spoke out last month, several more allegations have surfaced against Australian politicians and political staffers.

It sparked hundreds of thousands of women to take to the streets across the country, with more than 40 Women’s March 4 Justice rallies taking place across Australia.

“We are concerned that even if names are redacted, details of submissions could still lead to the identification of victims – or the alleged perpetrators,” the letter read.

The group said the review should be “an altruistic act” but it could damage victims’ careers and retraumatise them if their submissions were publicly available.

It said women would be hesitant to report harassment and abuse unless privacy was guaranteed before submissions opened.

“As you have both said publicly, it is important that as many people as possible participate in the review,” the letter said.

“To do this, current and former staff must have confidence in the sex discrimination commissioner’s ability to ensure privacy for participants in the immediate future and in the long-term.”

It said the possibility of the review being released by the National Archives in 20 years would cause similar problems.

Ms Higgins told thousands of March 4 Justice protesters outside parliament on Monday there was a “confronting sense of banality” over sexual assault in the Australian community.

“My story was on the front page for the sole reason that it is a painful reminder to women that, if it can happen in Parliament House, it can truly happen anywhere,” she said.

She was joined in signing the letter by Fiona Sugden, a former staffer to various senior Labor figures.

Therese Rein, entrepreneur and wife of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and Lucy Turnbull, former Sydney mayor and wife of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, also signed the letter.

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