MPs cannot ban work relationships, but can ensure respect: Cathy McGowan

SENSITIVE TOPIC: Indi MP Cathy McGowan said she was surprised by national reaction to her comments this week that a conversation was needed around workplace relationships. Picture: MARK JESSER
SENSITIVE TOPIC: Indi MP Cathy McGowan said she was surprised by national reaction to her comments this week that a conversation was needed around workplace relationships. Picture: MARK JESSER

Cathy McGowan has refuted claims she wants to introduce a ban on sexual relationships within the Parliament House workplace.

After revelations Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is having a child with a former staffer, the Indi MP wants a conversation about what is appropriate between bosses and employees.

She says it should focus on respect when relationships develop, rather than a ban.

“I think it would be incredibly difficult to govern people’s behaviour by law,” Ms McGowan said.

“If circumstances happen where you have a relationship at work and you’re the boss, it takes great skill to manage it.

“So for us as members of Parliament who employ staff, some professional development around what the corporate world is already managing would be very useful.”

She said the corporate world was “way ahead of Parliament” when it came to being skilled in human relations.

But the MP denied relationships were a private issue which should be left alone.

“The particular instance that has brought this discussion to a head does have elements of the personal, like a MP has fallen in love with a staffer. I think that happens and I do wish them well,” she said.

“That’s not private business, that professional business and it needs to be managed in the workplace.”

About 12 other MPs had been involved in discussions about the issue this week, and they are expected to develop a motion to come before federal Parliament.

“We’ve had Barnaby sitting in his seat, clearly caught, and the sympathy for somebody in that position – there’s just enormous sympathy for him,” Ms McGowan said.

“It’s an issue of how you manage your staff, how you supervise your staff, how you manage complaints within your staff … The standards in the community have changed so I think it’s time we as politicians talked about it.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was also against a ban on relationships, saying it was not something “you'd be justified in seeking to regulate”. “All of us have to be accountable for how we live our lives and of course Barnaby has been accountable ... he's been very upfront about it,” he said. 

Ms McGowan also met with La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar this week to talk about lobbying Education Minister Simon Birmingham to introduce a higher education regional framework, amid concerns a funding freeze will hurt country campuses.

“Because we’ve got smaller numbers, because students have to pay a lot more money to come here, the impact is much greater,” she said.