In this article for The Parliamentarian, I would like to share some thoughts about training for new Members of Parliament and their staff and provide examples of the new approaches that have been adopted in Australia. It is timely that I write on this topic. In May 2022, Australia’s federal election saw eight new Senators and 35 new Members of the House of Representatives elected to the 47th Parliament of Australia.
This article will provide an outline of the current Australian Parliamentarian Induction Program for newly elected Members, describe some recent events that prompted updates to the program and explain why these improvements are so important and the difference they have made to the most recently elected Members of the Australian Parliament.
As we have a bicameral Parliament in Australia, I should clarify that some of the points in this article are specific to Members of the House of Representatives, in which case I will use the term ‘Members’, but when referring to both Members and Senators, I will use the term ‘Parliamentarians’.
Newly elected Members of Parliament come from all walks of life, adding a breadth of experience to the richness of our parliamentary debates. However, most do not necessarily have previous experience in the life and responsibilities of a Parliamentarian. It is the responsibility of the Parliament, therefore, to ensure they receive this training and information as early as possible following their election.
When our new Parliamentarians are elected, they are effectively starting a new job and, as they settle in, there are several elements for them to be briefed and trained on. These include:
The Australian Parliamentarian Induction Program begins within the first six weeks of a Parliamentarian having been elected. For Members of the House of Representatives, there is a ‘New Members Seminar’ run over two days, where Members travel from their local constituencies to Parliament House in Canberra. During this seminar, various presenters from internal parliamentary departments and external services and teams meet and talk to the new Members about a broad range of topics ranging from how to speak to or propose amendments to Bills in the Chamber, to the important process of registering their interests and potential conflicts.
Following the formal induction seminar, check-ins are scheduled with new Members at three months following their election. This is to ensure all necessary information has been accessed and support is available for any follow-up questions or special needs.
A challenge shared by many Commonwealth Parliaments is the limited amount of time that Parliamentarians have. When they are being inducted, there is a risk of ‘information overload’.
There are very few opportunities where all new Members are in one room together, as one cohort, without other demands – such as Parliamentary sittings. Australia is a vast nation, and some Members have quite long distances to travel to Canberra when Parliament sits. So, it is vital that we make the best use of these two initial training days.
During our two-day seminar we try to provide the baseline knowledge that is both fundamental and relevant to all Members, to start off their parliamentary term, and we encourage additional training once they have settled into their roles.
It is definitely the case of ‘you don’t know, what you don’t know’, so it is always best to give Parliamentarians the information they need to hit the ground running and offer additional support once they settle in and know what they need.
We acknowledge that different Members have different interests and needs in their learning and development. Some are more interested in procedure while others are more interested in legislation. Some have more experience in these areas, while others are new to the whole landscape.
In addition, some Members may not have employed staff before, so Members are provided with advice and support on how to recruit and manage parliamentary staff, administer a budget and navigate the complex but crucial financial public accountability requirements that are required in the parliamentary context.
The Department of the House of Representatives offers a range of options for training for Members and their staff so that they can engage in more detailed procedural training. This includes formal and informal training opportunities such as lunchtime drop-in sessions for Members and their staff, to one-on-one ad hoc advice requests.
It is important to provide a range of training opportunities to suit the needs of each Member or their staff. Some prefer one-on-one intensive training, and some would just like to drop in to ask a quick question. Some Members like to send their staff to bring the expertise back to the team.
These training opportunities are offered to all Members and staff at regular times and as required.
Two years ago, there was significant media and public attention brought to the work culture and environment of the Australian Parliament House. This media interest highlighted that substantial changes were needed to make the parliamentary workplace a safer and more supportive environment for staff, particularly women: one that was more in line with the expectations of the Australian public who have elected us to these offices.
In response, in the past 12 months the Australian Parliament has made various changes to the way that Parliamentarians and their staff are inducted and supported in their jobs.
There have been a number of reviews and inquiries looking into new approaches and innovation to create and foster safe and respectful workplaces. This led the shift in how we train our Parliamentarians and their staff.
The induction training has been refreshed, and there is now extensive information and training provided to Parliamentarians on their role as an employer.
This is information on their responsibilities to their staff, such as learning and development, setting and modelling appropriate workplace culture, resolving issues, work health and safety and how to establish and maintain a positive workplace.
The refreshed induction training provides substantially more information than was previously provided on their responsibilities as an employer. So much so, it is almost given an equal weighting of importance with other parliamentary information, such as logistics, procedure, electorate offices and conducting parliamentary business.
Parliamentarians must remember that whilst they have responsibilities in the Chamber and in their electorate, they also have equal responsibility for the workplace they create and maintain. This responsibility is to set the standard for inclusive, respectful and professional workplaces, both in Parliament House and across Australia.
In addition to traditional services and training available to Parliamentarians and staff, such as leadership, procedural and other general skills, I would like to highlight our newer or expanded initiatives.
A new suite of training that is now available to Parliamentarians and their staff is ‘Safe and respectful workplaces training’. This is a face-to-face tailored workplace education that supports Parliamentarians and their staff to understand their rights and responsibilities in the workplace, what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and how to respond to serious incidents when they occur.
The training is offered in a variety of formats to provide flexibility. It can be delivered through shorter sessions, one-on-one, with a Parliamentarian, with a nominated staff member or for whole teams together.
In terms of services available to Parliamentarians and staff, we recently expanded our Parliamentary Workplace Support Service. The Support Service provides independent and confidential support to anyone who works or volunteers in a parliamentary workplace connected to the Federal Parliament. They assist in early intervention and resolution services, while also providing education and counselling to proactively improve workplace conduct.
The establishment of the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service provides Parliamentarians and their staff with the ease and assurance of one phone number to contact when serious incidents occur, with services available around the clock.
Whilst it sounds very simple and logical to change the way we have approached training for Parliamentarians and their staff, this shift contributes to a much larger cultural change.
These changes are important as they help support Parliamentarians to establish their offices and feel supported in managing their new staff and teams.
Ensuring that teams are well managed can improve performance, skills and the development of staff. It also makes clear the responsibility the Parliamentarians have in setting the standard in their own workplaces within Parliament.
Particularly in these times of change, it is important we continue reforming our services and training to continue to respond to the needs and interests of all Parliamentarians and their staff.
As Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, it is my honour and my privilege to oversee the Australian Parliament, alongside the President of the Senate, as it undertakes these changes for the benefit of the Parliamentarians and their staff.
This article is based on a keynote speech given at the 26th Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth (CSPOC) which took place from 3 to 6 January 2023 in Canberra, Australia. CSPOC is a separate independent organisation, although many of its participants are also members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. More information can be found at www.cspoc.org.