Brittany Higgins’ allegation she was raped in a minister’s office at Parliament House is just one of a number of recent stories of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct that have exposed the dark side of working conditions for some political staffers.
As a researcher of political staff in Australia, I am trying to understand why this behaviour exists within the working culture of parliament, why it is reaching the public eye now and what needs to be done about it.
Over the summer, I interviewed eight former political staffers about their experiences working in ministers’ offices and electorate offices — both at the federal and state level.
They described instances of bullying and sexual harassment by other staffers and their bosses. It is hard to know how common this is, as the world they inhabit is secretive. The identities of staffers are not publicly known, let alone how many make complaints and how they are dealt with.
The culture in Canberra
Work as a political staffer can be exciting and rewarding, as well as combative and competitive. Work is dominated by the needs and demands of a boss who is under constant scrutiny.
In her 2016 book, former staffer Niki Savva described her job this way:
The hours were long, the demands never-ending, the stress phenomenal and the fear of stuffing up overwhelming.
But along with the stress comes the prestige and thrill of being close to power and having an impact on public decisions. Most staffers describe their jobs as a privilege. It is their “dream job”.
Many staffers are young and female. I researched a group of federal political advisers working from 2010-17 and found almost 50% of them were recruited in their 20s. Over 75% were recruited before they turned 40.
Over 90% of administrative staff in the study were female, and 40% of the political and policy advisers were women.
The combination of long hours, being away from home and the constant presence of alcohol can be diabolical, creating risks for staffers.
Some described to me a hard-drinking culture, in which bar hopping was seen as a way to wind down and deal with stressful days. One staffer said she kept drinking on some nights to ensure her boss stayed out of trouble, helping him get into a taxi at the end of the night.
Another former staffer claimed the MP he worked for would begin drinking mid-afternoon on most days and when drunk, staff would have to deal with unwanted sexual advances. Repeatedly.
They didn’t complain out of loyalty. They just dealt with it. For years.
Few options for staffers to report misconduct
When they experience sexual harassment or bullying at work, political staffers face high stakes decisions about making complaints.
If they complain, they could lose their jobs or their career prospects. Their jobs are precarious and can be terminated at any time.
One legal reason for termination, according to the federal Department of Finance, can be if the senator or member “has lost trust or confidence in the employee”.
While staffers are covered by the Fair Work Act, invoking the workplace protections that exist for them is perilous. If they make a formal complaint, they could be sacked or seen as a troublemaker, jeopardising future work for their parties.
Loyalty to the politician and party is a paramount condition of their employment. As a result, the instinct for many is to protect the party. But tolerating poor conduct can mean bad behaviour becomes normalised.
Staffers are also not confident about raising these issues through party organisations. Those I interviewed said they believe the party’s priority is always its reputation, the likelihood of MPs being re-elected and factional power plays — leaders seeking to protect people with whom they are aligned. The well-being of staff is seen as collateral damage.
Accountability is lacking
Some of the people accused of misconduct are political staff, whose behaviour is governed by a code of conduct.
But we never hear about breaches of the code because it is policed internally by senior figures in the government, the members of the shadowy Government Staffing Committee.
When Labor was in government from 2007-13, it provided the dates on which the committee met and the number of investigations it conducted, but nothing about the nature of those investigations.
Since coming to power in 2013, the Coalition government has refused to provide any details about the work of the committee.
Parliament House alleged rape: Scott Morrison image that made Brittany Higgins speak out
“There is no HR at Parliament House”. Extraordinary. https://t.co/3n2vzYcoC0
— Rhys Muldoon (@rhysam) February 15, 2021
According to the ex-staffers I’ve interviewed, allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct are not new. Such behaviour has been going on for years. The same inequalities of power have long existed.
Why we are hearing about them now might be because the #MeToo movement has emboldened people to speak out. Like Brittany Higgins, the people who spoke to me were fuelled by anger that no one was held accountable for what happened to them and a desire to bring about change.
While these cases might be rare, something clearly needs to be done. Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacted to questions about Higgins’ allegation by saying the case was “deeply distressing” and the government takes “all matters of workplace safety very, very seriously.”
But it is leadership from the top that is needed to change a culture that enables and tolerates poor conduct.
We need independent mechanisms for handling complaints, job protections for staff who speak up and a front-foot commitment to maintaining a safe workplace, which means investigating and disciplining members of parliament and staffers when serious allegations are made.
This can only come from the prime minister himself and other party leaders at the top.