Victoria’s parliament has been sitting on a plan to make it safer for MPs and staff for more than two years, meaning a proposed independent commissioner to examine complaints levelled at MPs won’t be established until later this year at the earliest.
The wait comes as the Andrews government prepares to name the new chair of parliament’s electoral review committee after passing a motion on Tuesday to remove existing chair Will Fowles. The Ringwood MP resigned from the parliamentary Labor Party earlier this month following a serious assault allegation he strongly denies.
Fowles was not seen at parliament for the start of the parliamentary sitting week, but remains hopeful he will eventually clear his name and return from the crossbench to the Labor fold.
Upper house president Shaun Leane confirmed on Tuesday that the alleged incident did not occur at the parliamentary precinct. But he said more could always be done to improve complaint-handling processes.
“We’re under no illusions,” Leane said. “This is a unique workplace. We’ll continue to audit and look at what we’re doing and continue to try to improve.”
Fowles said on Tuesday the exact details of the complaint had still not been put to him.
“I was astonished to read reports this morning that the president of the Legislative Council has had details of the supposed allegation shared with him,” he wrote on Facebook. “Those details have still not been shared with me.”
Opposition Leader John Pesutto said Leane and Fowles’ comments were a cause for concern.
“What is going on here, when some people seem to have access to information that maybe others don’t? There doesn’t seem to be any process around this,” Pesutto said.
“[The president] appears to be saying that there’s no cause for the presiding officers of the parliament to investigate this matter because any behaviour didn’t occur in the parliamentary precinct. Now, that is very concerning to us. It shouldn’t matter where any alleged conduct has taken place if [someone who works in parliament is] involved.”
A discussion paper that the former lower house speaker and upper house president distributed to MPs in February 2021 sought feedback on the establishment of an independent commissioner to examine complaints about MPs’ behaviour.
The document, seen by The Age, stated the commissioner would be appointed on a “bipartisan basis” and probably be a former judge or ex-member of the Fair Work Commission.
Under the proposal, the commissioner would have the power to dismiss frivolous or vexatious complaints, refer accusations to external agencies such as Victoria Police and prepare a report for parliament.
“The commissioner would be bound by confidentiality and would make no public comments whatsoever about any notifications, allegations or investigations,” the document states.
Minister for Women Natalie Hutchins was contacted for comment. In response, a Victorian government spokeswoman said respectful workplaces were non-negotiable and the government would introduce a commissioner to scrutinise allegations against MPs.
“We will introduce legislation to deliver IBAC Operation Watts’ recommendation for a parliamentary integrity commissioner,” she said.
“[Our legislation] will include the ability for the commission to receive and consider complaints about MP conduct, consistent with the presiding officers’ proposals on bullying and harassment.”
A member of the electoral review committee, who spoke to The Age on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly, said MPs would meet later this week to elect a new chair and it would probably be an existing Labor member.
This means the new chair will either be Preston MP Nathan Lambert, Pakenham representative Emma Vulin or upper house MP Lee Tarlamis.
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