Twilight world of staffers makes for toxic, taxpayer-funded workplaces

By Bernard Keane

Wednesday February 17, 2021

Brittany Higgins
Former staffer Brittany Higgins interviewed on The Project (Image: Channel 10)

The extraordinarily privileged position that the major political parties occupy in industrial relations in Australia is rarely commented upon, mostly because the parties prefer it that way. No other employer in Australia is less accountable, more subsidised and more secretive than political parties in relation to the electoral, advisory and media staff they employ.

More correctly, taxpayers employ them. Certainly, taxpayers pay for them, but political parties control them, and are allowed — by mutual agreement — to prevent any public scrutiny of their behaviour in the way that other taxpayer-funded employees like public servants are scrutinised.

This limbo of non-accountability extends to all aspects of the behaviour of staffers and their de facto employers, politicians. And it is reinforced by the peculiar characteristics of being a political staffer: you are expected to be loyal not to the people funding your salary — the taxpayers — but the person to whom you directly answer, a politician.

And you are expected to be loyal to the party, which includes not subjecting it to unnecessary attention or embarrassment. For those truly committed, this loyalty may be rewarded in time with the chance of securing preselection. Only those who have been loyal need apply.

Political parties know perfectly well which of their MPs, ministers and shadow ministers are good bosses, and which are not. People talk. They know who the bullies are, who are the gropers, the drunks. Chiefs of staff will be employed to manage them, if they can. The rest of the staff will be expected to take one for the team and put up with it, with a vague assurance that they’ll be looked after.

Everything is to be kept quiet — only if someone has a factional interest in revealing something embarrassing, or even simply inventing something embarrassing, do we normally get a glimpse behind closed doors.

It’s an accountability-free workplace environment, tailor-made for exploitation and the amplification of normal workplace dynamics. Dynamics like that staffers tend to be young — sometimes in their first job. As ANU’s Maria Maley notes, most administrative staff are women, and 40% of political staff are.

Canberra is home for some staff but the majority are based elsewhere. Alcohol flows freely inside Parliament House offices as well as in the nightspots and restaurants of Canberra. So do other, less-legal drugs.

Male politicians of all stripes have of course long exploited the presence of large numbers of young women in their workplaces. Barnaby Joyce and Alan Tudge are only two of the more high-profile recent examples of male politicians who have given into the temptations of Parliament House while their partners were home looking after the kids. Rest assured the practice isn’t confined to Coalition MPs, by any stretch.

Nor is it confined to MPs and senators. To be a staffer, especially a more senior one, particularly in government, is to experience a giddying sense of power. You can roam the executive wing of Parliament House, hop on the VIP flights, order even the most senior public servants about, have access to the most privileged information, sit at the table — or just behind it — where the most important decisions are made while you busy yourself with intra-party business and the day-to-day labour of factional work.

An accountability-free workplace cut off from the real world, occupied by powerful, entitled people, with plenty of young people and particularly women in subordinate positions: it’s a recipe for sexual predation, as so many women, and not a few men as well, have learnt to their personal cost.

Given this poisonous environment, that Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins was allegedly sexually assaulted in Parliament House is thus, tragically, not surprising; what is unusual is her courage in speaking out about her assault and her treatment afterward (well reported by Samantha Maiden). The same courage was displayed by Rachelle Miller in revealing her treatment after her relationship with Alan Tudge and what she says she witnessed of Christian Porter’s behaviour.

Just as the political workplace is structurally toxic, so political parties are structurally unable to deal with the rapes, sexual harassment, bullying and other abuse that inevitably result from it, given their political priorities.

We’re reliant on people having the guts of Brittany Higgins to break the omerta of political staffing and reveal their abuse and pain. That’s exactly how the parties prefer it.

A final thing: if you can somehow only process what happened to Higgins, or to Miller, or to so many other women in political offices, because you’re a father of daughters — a line Scott Morrison invoked today — then your views on the subject should be immediately ruled out of court.

You don’t need to have fathered female children to understand that rape is massively underreported by women because of the way the community, employers and the criminal justice system responds. Nor do you need it to understand the power dynamics to which young people and especially young women are subjected to in workplaces.

Or, for that matter, that political parties make for deeply toxic employers.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, or visit

This article is curated from our sister publication Crikey.

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1 year ago

Toxic workplaces exist all over the APS, not just in MPs’ offices. Usually the fish rots from the head, but the level of managerial skill at all levels across the APS is pretty woeful. Bullies are ubiquitous and the system promotes and rewards them. It’s an absolute disgrace.

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