At the height of the Barnaby Joyce scandal, I discovered a whole bunch of stuff about political staffers.
I'll be honest. I haven't had a good experience with staffers in general. Usually, it's along the lines of what happened to me when I called Joe Hockey's office years ago. Joe was still a thing. The staffer who answered the phone abused me for having the temerity to ask a "loaded" question, and then proceeded to berate journalism in general and me in particular.
All that aside, political staffers do not have a good life. They are serfs, at the beck and call of their masters. Unwanted sexual attention is part of the problem, but there's much more in terms of workplace health, safety and security. They can pretty much be shunted on to someone else when their usefulness runs out. They can be exxed without notice and without any noticeable deterioration in their workplace performance. Politicians have the divine right to behave as badly as they like without any real punishment. Parents! Stop your children from being sucked into the industrial political machine through student politics.
We had proof of the mess this week when political staffer Rachelle Miller revealed on Four Corners that she'd been Tudged. That is, she and Liberal frontbencher Alan Tudge had a consensual affair, and then when things got hideous, Miller was moved on to Michaelia Cash's office. Cash is a former minister for women who didn't seem to understand what that portfolio was actually about. Miller says she was then subjected to a "fake redundancy" process.
Staffers such as Miller are employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, affectionately called MOPS, which says parliamentarians can employ whoever they want so long as it's done in accordance with arrangements approved by the Prime Minister. "Ministers' close relatives and partners are not to be appointed to positions in their ministerial or electoral offices ... without the Prime Minister's express approval," it says. I guess you can still have sex with someone you've employed without them being considered a close relative or partner, especially if you have an official relative or partner, dirty dogs. That certainly seemed to be the Tudge approach.
Staffers are afraid to use any mechanisms that already exist. They are afraid of losing their jobs, their reputations and any prospect of ongoing employment.
Miller has now lodged complaints against both Tudge and Cash, and heaven knows, since we are still waiting for Morrison's famous investigation into the reasons Julia Banks quit politics, whether Miller will ever get a result. At least she has the good result of public scrutiny through the efforts of the ABC's extraordinary Louise Milligan.
Political scientist Maria Maley of the Australian National University has spent years studying staffers and the act under which they operate. She says there needs to be a complete overhaul of MOPS.Maley reminds me that staffers are hired without much process, if any, but are paid for by the taxpayer. We never get to know who they are. We never get to see how or why they were employed. Former prime minister John Howard ditched the practice of naming advisers, and their identities are not readily publicly available. Everyone in Parliament House knows, but not us.
While MOPS might have been a perfectly fine instrument in the days when people worked for politicians and then went on to have other jobs, staffers these days are professionalised. They go from one politician to another, gaining experience and seniority. They have an expectation that they will continue to work for politicians for years. Taxpayers should know where their money goes
Staffers may not be the best possible candidates for their jobs, but they should, at the very least, be protected. While there are mechanisms by which it is possible to lodge complaints about sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation, there are few ways to discipline politicians for poor behaviour. After all, they have it modelled for them by very senior figures. It's embarrassing that the Prime Minister's decision to manterrupt Anne Ruston, who was asked about the bonk ban, has become an international gaffe. We also have the alleged behaviour of Attorney-General Christian Porter. I guess we will eventually hear what horrors the federal Labor Party houses (two years ago there was an interim sexual harassment policy, but I haven't heard anything more about it - it too excluded staffers). And we have had some pretty horrific insights into the Greens.
- Virginia Haussegger: Parliament's male-dominated culture has let men off the hook for too long
- Christian Porter, Alan Tudge revelations spark call for cultural change (Subscriber only)
- MP Helen Haines says people with power should not 'exploit' their positions
- Christian Porter risked security compromise, says Turnbull
Despite that bad behaviour of the PM, I'm pretty sure no one reprimanded him - so if it's acceptable for the Prime Minister, it then becomes acceptable for the backbencher from nowhere in particular to behave that way.
Says Maley: "These expectations of the fair treatment of women have to come from the top."
On top of that poor role modelling, staffers are afraid to use any mechanisms that already exist. They are afraid of losing their jobs, their reputations and any prospect of ongoing employment.
Maley has the answer. She argues staffers should be managed as a group, recognised by their particular party as having rights. The party should exercise responsibility. That means that even if a relationship breaks down, there is someone to manage staffers' careers.
But Karen O'Connell, an expert in discrimination law at the University of Technology Sydney, is not all that optimistic. She says the situation when it comes to staffers is quite similar to the situation faced by lawyers.
"It's a closed community, and your future career depends on being highly thought of and without having any questions hanging over you," O'Connell says.
"When we ask women to speak up, they face the risk of killing their careers and there should be protections in place."
And it can't be an in-house solution when it comes to dealing with complaints.
Only sunlight will change the culture. It's only when people start airing things in public that the shift happens. We'd love a few more Boe Pahari moments. And maybe Rachelle Miller will be the catalyst.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.