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Premier Daniel Andrews has told a closed meeting of more than 30 female MPs that he considered closing the bar at Victorian parliament as part of a wider discussion about the culture and standards of politicians on Spring Street.
The meeting of Labor’s women’s caucus was held last week following a scandal involving Ringwood MP Will Fowles and allegations of assault.
Victorian MP Will Fowles.Credit: Joe Armao
Fowles was booted from Labor caucus this month but no complainant has yet come forward to police, and he has rejected any wrongdoing.
The alleged incident is not said to have happened in the parliamentary precinct, but the issue has reignited a discussion about the standards of MP behaviour during sitting weeks and how complaints about poor behaviour are handled.
Female MPs across the political divide have privately voiced concerns that the institution has not kept pace with 21st-century standards when it comes to incidents of bullying, harassment or excessive drinking.
In response, Andrews met with female MPs in the Labor caucus to discuss these topics and was planning to hold a similar meeting with male MPs next week.
Premier Daniel Andrews on Tuesday.Credit: Justin McManus
The Age has spoken to several people in the meeting who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the conversation.
They confirmed the premier stressed that the parliament was a workplace “like any other” and that all employees, including staffers and parliamentary workers, should consider their behaviour, feel comfortable to make complaints and trust they would be handled appropriately.
But they said this included an acknowledgment that it was difficult for women to speak out about alleged incidents.
Andrews told attendees he had considered whether the bar inside parliament should be closed or a ban placed on alcohol, but also did not want alcohol to be used as an excuse for poor behaviour, they said.
When he was opposition leader, Andrews had proposed that MPs be randomly breathalysed at parliament, but this idea never went ahead after a parliamentary committee found it to be impractical.
One MP said the alleged incident with Fowles had shown parliament “could do better”, but the conversation with the premier was positive and focused on possible solutions to make people working in politics feel safer.
Another said there was a discussion about whether Labor candidates should sign an agreement before their endorsement that would hold them to a high standard of behaviour if elected.
There was also discussion from cabinet ministers about ensuring all MPs, including themselves, did not get “too big for their boots” and were respectful to staff.
One senior Labor figure said the decision to hold the male and female meetings separately reminded them of high school.
“The boys and girls have been separated from the classrooms,” they said.
After former Ringwood MP Dustin Halse was accused of having sex in his office under parliamentary privilege in 2021, the government said it would consider a proposal for an independent commissioner to handle bullying and complaints.
This was then rolled into plans for a parliamentary integrity commissioner, a key recommendation of the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission’s Operation Watts.
The premier says he considered closing the bar at Parliament House.Credit: Paul Jeffers
The Andrews government also agreed to another recommendation to set up a Parliamentary Ethics Committee, which would review the current MP Code of Conduct and Statement of Values.
Former Justice Party MP Tania Maxwell last year asked the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to probe allegations of sexual harassment and bullying on Spring Street, with the commission proposing to meet with the Speaker in the lower house and the President of the upper house.
Victorian Greens Deputy Leader Ellen Sandell said improving behaviour in parliament had long been a talking point, but said the behaviour of politicians during question time was still “pretty appalling”.
“It’s not something that would be accepted in any other workplace, and unfortunately, it’s often still women who bear the brunt of it,” she said.
Victorian Greens Deputy Leader Ellen Sandell.Credit: Simon Schluter
“It’s no wonder many young people, women and [people from] diverse communities don’t want to enter public life when that’s the standard they see.”
Earlier this week, Fowles attended a Labor party meeting at his local branch and expressed dissatisfaction at the way he had been treated by the premier and his office.
“It’s very hard to refute a claim when you haven’t seen it, no complaint has been made other than to a private office, and the only action taken in relation to the claim is demanding a resignation and issuing a media release,” he said in a statement to The Age.
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