The former Liberal staffer Chelsey Potter has raised concerns with her former employer, the federal finance minister, Simon Birmingham, about document confidentiality overreach in the looming Jenkins review into parliamentary culture.
Guardian Australia understands there is growing agitation in staff ranks that new legislation ensuring that submissions to the review can’t be obtained under freedom of information legislation – or released under the Archives Act – also contains a clause that gives ministers and agencies a broad-ranging FoI exemption.
Potter – who has alleged she was sexually assaulted by a colleague in Canberra while working for Birmingham in 2015 – told Guardian Australia political staffers needed a review of parliamentary culture they could trust.
“This bill in its present form, while it provides the confidentiality protections we have requested, doesn’t inspire a lot of trust when it comes to the last clause,” Potter said.
“I really want to support this review but I won’t do so blindly. I won’t support a bill that robs staffers of agency or justice, now or into the future.
“I feel that this clause, unamended, provides an opportunity for the powerful in Canberra to continue to bury things – and the time for that is well and truly over. I hope the government will work with staffers, hear our concerns, and provide the amendment we are seeking”.
Guardian Australia understands Potter’s concerns are shared by a number of current and former political staff across the party divide. Staff object to what they characterise as a “sweeping retrospective exemption to the FoI Act for a minister, department or prescribed authority with regard to any contemporary or historical documents provided to, or created for the review”.
The concern is staff could lose rights to access pertinent documents held by their former employers if those documents are presented to the Jenkins review. The looming review, to be undertaken by Kate Jenkins, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, was set up in the wake of the sexual assault allegation levelled by the former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.
Lucy Turnbull and Thérèse Rein – the spouses of Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd – have backed the agitation of the staff.
In a joint statement supplied to Guardian Australia, they said: “It is surprising there is an extra amendment that has been snuck in to the FoI Act which makes it possible to lock down access to any ministerial of departmental documents about these issues forever.”
“The goals of transparency and accountability will be frustrated by this,” Turnbull and Rein said. “It will protect critical information about perpetrators and government procedure from seeing the light of day. We want Parliament House to be as safe a workplace for women as it is for men.”
The independent MP Zali Steggall has taken up the concerns raised by staff and has proposed amendments to the legislation passed by the Senate last week. The legislation could return to the House of Representatives for consideration on Thursday.
“I’ve proposed amendments that address concerns about witnesses losing existing rights to access documents held by ministers and agencies,” Steggall said on Wednesday night.
Steggall said witnesses prepared to make submissions to the Jenkins review needed to know that those submissions would remain confidential – but that protection should not erode their existing rights to access relevant material. “It is important we get this right,” she said.
Birmingham’s office has been contacted for comment.
The government has sought to make the Jenkins review a multiparty process with buy-in from the Coalition, Labor, the Greens and the crossbench.
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. International helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.