Australian MP mentions workplace bullying but is short on practical controls

On 18 March 2010, the last sitting day of that session of Australia’s Parliament, Labor Member of Parliament , Bill Shorten, spoke about workplace bullying and the OHS prosecutions that stemmed from the bullying and suicide of Brodie Panlock.  Some of his short speech rehashed details of the workplace bullying prosecutions but, according to the draft of Hansard (page 93), Shorten made some useful remarks:

“I rise to speak on the issue of workplace bullying.  We would not think it was acceptable for people to come to work and be exposed to asbestos or toxic chemicals.  We should not think, therefore, that it is appropriate for them to be exposed to the toxic behaviour that is sustained and malicious bullying.  I believe that this kind of bullying is something which can be eradicated.  We have changed attitudes on smoking in the workplace and on sexual harassment; there is no reason why we cannot eliminate forever bullying in the workplace.

Bullying is an absence of kindness and empathy toward one’s fellow human beings.  We cannot eradicate the monster of unkindness which lives within some people or make it illegal, but we can remove it from the artificial environment which is the workplace.  Bullying does not happen in a vacuum. It flows from the general culture of a workplace. If respect and dignity are absent from a workplace then bullying and cruelty are given a chance to thrive.

We also need to encourage people to report bullying, and there are those who need to be listened to.  Too often the bearer of bad news in workplaces is ignored or punished because no-one wants to admit that their organization may have a problem.  Too often when cases of bullying are eventually exposed we wonder why we did not spot the signs earlier and why nothing was done to intervene.”

Shorten is a former trade unionist who has not been shy of accusing corporations of bullying.  Some would argue that a trade unionist would be an expert on bullying due to the types of negotiations often involved in industrial relations but Shorten’s comments seem heartfelt and should be taken in the context intended.

Shorten gets workplace bullying into Parliament but there are few clues on how to combat workplace bullying – a toxic workplace behaviour that Shorten says can be eradicated.  It seems these four cultural elements are the suggested controls:

  • Kindness
  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Dignity

It should be noted that Bill Shorten is a Victorian MP and Victoria has recently appointed a Minister for Respect, Justin Madden.  The appointment is gaining no traction as Madden seemed uncertain about what to do and since his appointment in February 2010, his star as the Minister for Planning has plummeted.  The “Respect Agenda” was not an original idea and due to its failed attempt in England has come to be seen as a political tool for distraction and one that sounds attractive but achieves nothing.

It is curious that Shorten was the MP to raise the issue of workplace bullying as it is not under his current position as Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services.  Workplace bullying is not an issue concerning children unless they work.   Shorten’s example of Brodie Panlock refers to a 19-year-old who had full legal responsibility for her actions and decisions.  Any MP can make a “constituency statement” but the purpose of such statements is unclear unless it is to get a couple of paragraphs in a local newspaper in one’s own electorate.

Surely a more appropriate person for such a statement on workplace bullying would have been Julia Gillard who is both the Minister for Education and the Minister for Workplace Relations.  Although SafetyAtWorkBlog believes there is a differentiation between school bullying and workplace bullying, if there were any continuity between the two, Julia Gillard would have been in a perfect position to give the matter the political clout it requires.  Gillard is also a Victorian MP.

Focusing again on workplace bullying and Shorten’s comments, he believes that

“… we can remove it from the artificial environment which is the workplace”.

SafetyAtWorkBlog agrees, but the removal would require the public discussion to not be distracted by bullying in other locations, such as schools.  The discussion is being muddied by some considering bullying to be the same, regardless of location, age, sex or technology and this will ultimately kill any success in devising control measures for workplace bullying.

There is no public information that indicates Brodie Panlock was bullied at school.  Her torment originated in the workplace.  Her bullies were colleagues in the workplace.  Those turning a blind eye were in the workplace, and the successful prosecution occurred within workplace laws.  Shorten, in his speech to Parliament, stresses the workplace context and it is here we should focus our efforts.  Shorten says:

“Work makes up a big part of our lives and is a big part of how we define ourselves. To feel unsafe, humiliated or worthless at work damages a person’s life, and the effects last long after the person has left the workplace.”

Kevin Jones

PETITION:  a petition against workplace bullying and stemming from issues related to Brodie Panlock is available for signing HERE.

TELEVISION: Australian TV broadcast a forum on bullying (workplace and school) on 21 March 2010.  It is available online under the title “Beating the Bullies”

reservoir, victoria, australia

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