Parliament in Australia is developing a reputation as a breeding ground for bullying, sexual misconduct and corruption, writes Peter Wicks.
JUST LIKE MANY OTHERS, I was less than shocked to hear about the sordid nature of the alleged affairs of Christian Porter and Alan Tudge, two Ministers in the Liberal Party that constantly campaign on faux family values.
What also should have surprised me but didn’t is that despite it being the worst-kept secret in Canberra, it took a courageous journalist from outside the “Canberra bubble” to finally shine a light where others didn’t dare.
Louise Milligan was once again fearless in blowing the whistle on unethical behaviour at the highest level.
Her explosive Four Corners report has lifted a lid on the culture in parliament and highlighted a lack of accountability for MPs who behave in a way that would not be tolerated outside of it.
It is not only improper sexual conduct that needs to be addressed – although that is as disturbing as it is common – but there is a huge issue regarding bullying. These outcomes are inevitable when a high-pressure work environment is merged with a culture of secrecy, “taking one for the team” and the removal of all accountability for those at the top of the food chain.
Today I wanted to share three stories of cases of bullying that have caused ongoing issues for those who were subjected to it and resulted in no disciplinary action whatsoever for the perpetrators.
First, however, a bit of an explanation of the critical problem of accountability.
As a parliamentary staffer, your employer is the Commonwealth of Australia. Many assume the employer is the MP or the Department of Finance, but when you escalate it to the highest levels you discover that legally the Department of Finance pays staff on behalf of the Commonwealth and as an elected official, the MP or senator is considered the Commonwealth by law. So in a court of law, you are not suing an MP, you are actually suing the Commonwealth as an entity.
There is a union staff members can join and receive assistance and representation, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). The CPSU is a Labor affiliated union, which is great if you work for a Liberal MP, but not so flash if you are expecting action against a Labor MP.
As a staffer, the highest escalation is the High Court to achieve a reasonable outcome. However, before that, you will have to go through a number of hurdles such as a lengthy complaints process, Department of Finance mediation and possibly the Fair Work Commission.
This will be done with access to whatever services you can muster on a pretty average wage while the MP has access to the legal services offered to parliamentarians including advice of the Solicitor General, as well as legal services offered by the relevant political party. I’m unaware of any case that has made it to the High Court.
Those with a vested interest in making sure things don’t change are the only ones in a position to make the necessary changes.
These cases are all real, however, for legal reasons I cannot disclose names. But what I will say to save speculation is that none of them is Emma Husar and nor are any of them staff members of former Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber.
The first case was described by the Dept of Finance appointed councillors as the worst case they had ever seen of workplace bullying. It involved years of verbal abuse and the belittling of the staff member to the point where the staffer was left overflowing with self-doubt despite their clear and demonstrated capabilities.
The abuse was so bad that due to the screaming taking place in parliament the MP in the office next door actually requested a welfare check on staff in his neighbouring office via the whip's office of his opposing party. The sound of the abuse carried through two thick walls and was frequent enough to raise alarm bells with another MP.
This staffer suffered crippling panic attacks and was suicidal for a lengthy period and explained the parliament's response to the abuse he suffered like this:
“I feel I’m on a ledge of a tall building, all alone and ready to jump. Meanwhile, while a team of lawyers, party officials and parliamentary staff are running around below making sure I don’t land on him or get any splatter on him when I hit the ground.”
This former staffer is still receiving psychiatric care years later, while the MP concerned hasn’t lost an hour's sleep as a result.
Another staffer who worked for a Liberal Party Senator was one of several staff members who left the Senator’s office after years of bullying behaviour that was well known to the party. Putting both the “con” and “serve” into conservative, this Senator served abuse to her staff while conning factional support to ensure she secured her seat on the Senate gravy train.
This Senator was known to hurl abuse at staff but also things like books and basically anything within arm’s reach. This resulted in many staff members requiring counselling and led to a high staff turnover in the office which doesn’t assist any constituent whatsoever.
The Senator in question has a woeful reputation as quite deranged in temperament within the Liberal Party, but as far as the public is concerned, she is held up as some kind of moral crusader of conservative values.
The Senator is yet to be disciplined in any way.
Finally, there is the case of a Labor MP’s staffer that was subjected to years of workplace bullying that involved himself and several other staff members. The MP in question was prone to severe temper tantrums and thrived on an environment of conflict amongst his staff, intentionally pitting them against each other.
At one point, local police had to be called to perform a welfare check at a member of staff's residence after that staff member suffered a mental breakdown.
This MP didn’t appreciate someone standing up to him and actively sought to destroy the staffer's reputation.
Detailed reports of this MP’s behaviour were sent to the party leader's office as well as the State Secretary of the party as the staffer sought assistance from those with authority within it. I have personally seen the responses from the Secretary and party leader's office, which offer little more than the obligatory “best wishes” and “take it up with Fair Work Commission or the union”.
The staffer received, at best, half-arsed support from the union and took the matter as far as possible with the Fair Work Commission at his own cost, where the MP was represented by a lawyer, ironically from a firm associated with supporting workers, from whom he received pro bono services.
The final result was basically a slap on the wrist for the MP and a type of restraining order agreement on both sides. The MP received no disciplinary action whatsoever.
Our parliament's role is to pass legislation that defines laws, yet they are hopelessly incapable of controlling the behaviour of their colleagues.
When MPs are elected to parliament, they are given a comprehensive induction process that covers processes, procedures, expectations, entitlements, both from Parliamentary Services as well as the party if they are part of a major one. What they are not taught is staff management and ethical workplace procedure. Staff members are an afterthought.
Is it any wonder there is a trail of destroyed lives in the wake of many of our “Honourable” members?
Something needs to change.
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