These unprotected staffers don’t have an HR dept to turn to

By Sean Sammon

Wednesday February 14, 2018

With the media cycle being dominated by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and his relationship with his former media adviser, I attended an event which happened to have a number of other former political staffers in attendance.

Given this relationship was an open secret in Canberra, the conversations weren’t focused on the nature of the relationship but rather if the Daily Telegraph‘s decision to report on it had opened the door for future stories of a similar nature.

In a Canberra sitting week there are more than 3000 people working at Parliament House and like any big workplace, relationships are formed (I met my wife at parliament!) and sometimes, these relationships break down.

What makes Parliament House and these types of relationships different in many people’s eyes is the public nature of the building and the fact that behind those big white walls, work is produced that affects the lives of all Australians, from the finalisation of tax policy in the treasurer’s office to the reporting of the nation’s political affairs in the press gallery.

Often referred to as the Canberra bubble, this high-pressure world often sees relationships and friendships formed across political party lines, journalists, politicians and staffers. Sometimes, these relationships extend beyond what most people would consider polite dinner table conversation.

Historically, there has been an unwritten rule that relationships of this nature, while often common knowledge internally, are not reported by the media. In some cases, it has been accepted as just another part of the fly-in fly-out Canberra bubble lifestyle along with late nights working, takeout dinners and the Wednesday night session at Public Bar in Manuka.

While the revelations of the last few weeks have undoubtedly been incredibly difficult for the Deputy Prime Minister, his ex-wife and children as well as his new partner, this new media paradigm might lead to some positive changes for the professional environment of Parliament House. Parliament House doesn’t have an HR department and there isn’t a formal process to deal with these types of issues. As has been reported with respect to the former staffer, often staff are shifted to different offices or their roles are made redundant.

If something positive is to come out of this issue, political staffers, politicians, and others employed under the MPH act, will formalise how they deal with these situations. If this doesn’t occur then there is a very real possibility could what has happened at other organisations (Channel 7, AFL, etc) could occur and future issues may play out in the courts. I have no doubt that if this were to happen it would not only be politically embarrassing, but the light shone on the lack of process and protections put in place for political staff and politicians would be even more shocking.

The world is changing and bubbles are being burst all the time. This won’t be the last affair to happen in Canberra, but hopefully it’s the first that leads to real change in the processes to protect staff and politicians.

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