Parliament boss grilled over 'toxic' workplace culture

Allegations about a toxic workplace culture at the heart of Australian democracy have been brushed off as "unsubstantiated".

The department responsible for supporting operations at parliament house and the work of federal politicians has been accused of fomenting a culture of silence and cover-ups among staff, a report from the ABC revealed.

The Department of Parliamentary Services employs thousands of people who work with other departments to provide library, information, visitor, retail, food and other services at Canberra.

While department secretary Robert Stefanic agreed that parliament house should be a safe workplace for all, he dismissed the allegations.

"From time to time, people make unsubstantiated claims about things," he told budget estimates on Tuesday.

"No actual evidence has been provided as to what those issues are apart from hearsay.

"It's easy for people to throw around words like toxic without any substantiation as to what the nature of this toxicity is - what this concern is."

Mr Stefanic noted the department's anonymous staff census had shown an upward trajectory on all measures in relation to staff engagement since 2016.

Its turnover rate was also in line with the average for the Australian Public Service.

"That is not reflective of an agency that has a toxic culture," he said.

"I've given my heart and soul into reforming and transforming the department."

Workplace culture within parliament house has fallen under the spotlight after former staffer Brittany Higgins in 2021 alleged she had been raped by fellow staffer Bruce Lehrmann inside a minister's office.

Bruce Lehrmann leaving court.
Rape allegations against Bruce Lehrmann sparked toxic workplace concerns about parliament house. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Lehrmann has always denied the allegations, but a later defamation case he launched against a media outlet found, on the balance of probabilities, that he had raped Ms Higgins.

The accusation ignited a workplace reckoning.

Then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a formal apology and announced two investigations into the culture at parliament house.

In November 2021, the government released a report into parliamentary workplaces which found the Department of Parliamentary Services was "particularly driven by fear".

But the ABC's report found that in the three years since, staff believed little had changed.

Mr Stefanic has also been at the centre of controversy after it was revealed he had a relationship with his deputy secretary Cate Saunders.

Ms Saunders no longer works at the Department of Parliamentary Services, but Mr Stefanic said he had been forced to endure "repeated violation" of his privacy.

The media reports were based on what he deemed "malicious and gossip-labelled information" and Mr Stefanic said he had made the necessary declarations.

"I have acted appropriately at all times," he said.