Insiders’ view: ‘For many staffers, the only choice is to put up with it or leave’

By The Mandarin

Monday February 22, 2021

parliament house
When a minister has a big cloud hanging over them, how does it affect their departments?(IAAP/Lukas Coch)

This article was written by a former staffer who spent 10 years working in the ministerial and electorate offices of federal MPs. She has requested anonymity and chosen to write the piece because “there just is nowhere else but the media where we can be heard”.

The fact that Brittany Higgins was allegedly raped in the Parliament of Australia should be irrelevant: sexual assault is abhorrent no matter where it occurs.

Many of us who work there know the mindset that guided those around her both when it happened and last week when they responded: this is a political problem; this needs to be managed.

Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum say they want a review of the culture in their workplace. This is a positive step, but unless all forms of bullying, intimidation and harassment in their offices are acknowledged, their good intentions will mean nothing.

It cannot be the case that a young woman being raped is the benchmark for behaviour we won’t accept.

Any review should start with the framework in which this — and other crimes — have been committed.

Parliamentary staff are employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984, or MOPS act. Similar legislation is in place at state and local government levels. It is a set of rules defined by the parliament, for the parliament. They make their own rules.

Ministerial and electorate offices are small, autonomous teams. Ministers have higher staff allocations and defined roles, but electorate offices are unregulated. There is no requirement for transparent recruitment or merit-based selection. The pathway from electorate officer to ministerial adviser is well trodden.

The act says staff are to work “under the sole direction of the employing senator or member” — so staffers have been employed to care for pets or family members, or run personal errands.

There are limits on political activities allowed in taxpayer-funded offices, but there is very little enforcement of those rules. In offices around the country you will find party operatives assigned to parliamentarians’ payrolls perpetually electioneering.

A staffer’s employment is tied to their boss’ success — if the boss loses their job through a reshuffle or an election so do the staff. Under the act if an MP decides a staffer is no longer required, a simple “restructure” removes them. The precariousness of our employment is always present.

There is limited scope for complaints about working conditions. There is no HR department or Fair Work Commission. These matters are dealt with by the member or senator — but being a good manager isn’t a prerequisite for election.

If your boss is the perpetrator of bullying, harassment or intimidation, a complaint could lose you your job. If your problem is with a fellow staffer, there’s a chance your boss lacks the skills, or the desire, to resolve your complaint. For many staffers, the only choice is to put up with it or leave.

Complaining to the party is even less effective. Its priority is always reelection, and it will protect reputations at all cost. Its influence over the selection of staffers creates an almost protected species, no matter how problematic the employee is. Those who speak out are seen as traitors. Silence is always the preferred option.

Parliament is a place where a select few hold enormous power — not just over public policy but over their own personal workforce. Combative behaviour is not just tolerated, it’s celebrated. Like many institutions of power it attracts those who want to exploit it.

Not all politicians are bad leaders and not all staffers are ambitious and ruthless — but if they are they can flourish here.

This is the environment Higgins worked in. Chelsey Potter and Dhanya Mani, who say they were sexually assaulted by their staffer colleagues, worked in it too. So did Rachelle Miller, who says she was bullied and harassed after ending a consensual affair with a minister.

Emma Husar was an MP when she was accused of sexually explicit behaviour in a parliamentary office, even though she said it never happened. This is undoubtedly a place where women are degraded.

But as we process these horrific experiences, let’s not risk the opportunity to take a broader view.

Female MPs and staffers are able to abuse power just as easily as their male colleagues.

And this isn’t just a problem in one political party; those who suggest it is are lying.

There are fundamental and widespread problems with the professional standards of our parliament and it starts with the way each and every parliamentary office functions. The current settings don’t work. Rules are scant, regulation non-existent, and politicians manage their own teams regardless of their ability to do so.

This is where the culture has bred, in which these crimes took place. These are not the modern Australian workplaces we expect them to be.

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

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