Power imbalances and a culture of silence are just some factors that make political staffers vulnerable to sexual misconduct, writes Maria Maley.
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.
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 2010-2017 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.