The workplaces where bullies flourish
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The workplaces where bullies flourish

The past month in federal politics has confirmed what many of us already suspected: knowing what goes on behind the scenes at parliament is like watching sausages be made.

As the expression implies, knowing all the unsavoury details about how it’s done is deeply offputting. And at best, it’s still a bit of a sausage fest.

This week Liberal MP Ann Sudmalis resigned, using parliamentary privilege to accuse state MP Gareth Ward of branch-stacking, bullying and betrayal.

Before that two of her Liberal colleagues, MP Julia Banks and Senator Lucy Gichuhi, accused colleagues in the Dutton camp of bullying and intimidation in the lead up to the spill that ousted Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.

Liberal MP Ann Sudmalis attacks colleagues during a  speech to Parliament on Monday night.

Liberal MP Ann Sudmalis attacks colleagues during a speech to Parliament on Monday night. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

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And it's not very long ago that Labor MP Emma Husar resigned amid claims and counter-claims of bullying and harassment.

Bullying is a scourge of many workplaces. Is it particularly bad in parliament or just more newsworthy? And what can we learn from the alleged bad behaviour of our pollies?

But first, what is workplace bullying? The Australian Human Rights Commission defines it as “verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by your employer or manager, another person or group of people at work”.

It can include repeated hurtful remarks, violence and threats and mind games and psychological torment such as giving you impossible jobs or pointless tasks. For a politician this could certainly include threats to their pre-selection or damaging leaks to the media.

I think there’s good reason to believe it might be especially bad in politics. Michelle Tuckey, a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy at the University of South Australia, says bullying in the workplace is a symptom of poor organisational functioning.

Our high rotation of prime ministers is arguably also a symptom of poor organisational functioning in the Parliament.

Workplaces with unclear roles and duties, conflicting demands and excessive red tape have higher incidence of bullying, according to Tuckey. Meanwhile, having a greater say over when and how the work is done is related to lower levels of bullying.

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While organisations often treat bullying by asking employees to complete awareness training and comply with company policy, Tuckey says this is like treating the symptom rather than the cause.

Most telling is the fact that Tuckey’s research suggests bullying can be triggered by competition for resources, such as funding, equipment and staff.

That’s one reason why bullying might be particularly bad in Parliament. After all, what is politics but an adversarial means of determining policies to allocate resources?

Politics is also the unabashed pursuit of power – whether collective or individual. For some, it’s power for its own sake. For others, power is the means to the end of achieving good outcomes to the public. Either way, power is necessary to the whole enterprise. A politician without power is an ineffective seat-warmer.

But this is no excuse for bullying. Intimidation and standover tactics are not the only way to achieve power, nor are they acceptable if we want a functional democracy that attracts a high calibre of candidates who reflect the broader community.

We need more politicians who are skilled at persuasion and schooled in the art of influence. We have a few – and many of them are women.

Julia Gillard was able to hold together a minority government.

Julia Gillard was able to hold together a minority government.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

From all accounts, former prime minister Julia Gillard was pretty good at this. Whatever you think of her policies, she was adroit at managing internal Labor politics and holding together a minority government. Unfortunately for her, she was unable to click with the majority of the voting public.

Of course, power dynamics exist in other workforces too, but if there’s good leadership the battle for resources is much less fraught. There is also typically a wider range of motivations, as people do particular jobs for a variety of reasons.

Safe Work Australia says bullying and violence in the workplace affects the worker’s mental and physical health, imposing economic and social costs for workers, their families, their colleagues and their employer.

Nearly two out of five mental disorder claims are caused by harassment, bullying or exposure to violence, Safe Work says. One in three women who claim for a mental disorder stated it involved harassment or bullying, while for men it was one in five.

We need to tackle bullying in our politics – and every workforce.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons writes about work, life and money. Facebook: @caitlinfitzsimmons. Twitter: @niltiac

Caitlin Fitzsimmons edits the Money section for SMH and The Age and writes columns about life, money and work. She is based in our Sydney newsroom.