Brittany Higgins' allegation she was raped in a minister's office cast a spotlight on the working lives of staffers. My research reveals many of the problems lie in the framework of staffers' employment. There are possible ways to fix them, though none are straightforward.
Bullying and sexual harassment in political offices has long been tolerated and concealed.
One woman wrote to me that "the minister's groping was awful but his bullying and abuse of power was much worse. His chiefs of staff were dedicated to ensuring no one else found out".
There is clearly a gender dynamic at play. Young female advisers are particularly vulnerable and powerless. However it is more complex than that. One staffer I interviewed who experienced sexual harassment was a man. I heard stories of male chiefs of staff going into the toilets to cry after incessant criticism from their minister. Sometimes the sexual harasser or bullying boss was a woman.
This tells us the problems are deeply related to power relations. The MP, senator or minister has almost untrammelled power over their staff and few restraints on their conduct.
Problems arise from the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act (MOPS Act). Under the Act, staffers are employed directly by parliamentarians on behalf of the Commonwealth. They are Commonwealth employees, paid by the taxpayer, but are not public servants and don't enjoy the same rights and protections. The Commonwealth government is liable for injuries they sustain at work and is also responsible for maintaining a safe workplace for them.
Department of Finance administers their employment, representing the Commonwealth, but appears to have few powers.
There are 227 employers and limited ability to compel them to act in relation to their staff.
If a staffer complains to Finance about bullying, the department can investigate and raise the issue with the MP or senator, but it is solely up to the parliamentarian to take action. This can be problematic when the MP, or a trusted senior staffer, is the subject of the complaint. Problems in the workplace remain solely within the purview of each office. There are 227 employers and limited ability to compel them to act in relation to their staff.
Some staffers told me Finance officers were supportive and organised counselling for them, but could do little to address problematic behaviour. One woman said Finance discouraged her from making a complaint of bullying, suggesting she mend her relationship with the MP. The mediation session they organised was so traumatic it put her in bed for days, and she resigned. By then her quota of counselling support had run out.
The Prime Minister has powers that could be used more forcefully. Under the MOPS Act parliamentarians employ staff "subject to conditions as are determined by the Prime Minister". Why not set the condition that no staffer can be employed without undergoing mandatory WHS training, or even that no MP can employ staff without undergoing training?
This would require considerable political authority to be wielded by the Prime Minister, something that has been lacking. Tellingly, despite Scott Morrison's "long expressed" views that Craig Kelly's office manager Frank Zumbo (who denies the allegations against him) "shouldn't be employed", Mr Kelly took no action to stand him down.
Taking this idea further, a review of the MOPS Act could consider inserting a third party into the employment relationship between a parliamentarian and their staff. This would enable bodies outside of the office to have a legal interest in, and some influence over, the parliamentary workplace. But which third party would be appropriate?
Employment rights under the Fair Work Act and Work Health and Safety Act exist but are often not exercised. Finance needs to improve training for staffers, as many are not aware of their rights and the processes available to them. High turnover means there can be little corporate memory within offices. Training courses are often poorly attended.
The Prime Minister endorsed the idea of an independent body to which staffers could take their complaints without risking their jobs. Such a body must be supported by codes of conduct that bind parliamentarians, ministers and staffers to standards of workplace conduct. An independent body would also need powers to investigate and implement the rules.
There are vested interests amongst politicians not to take such steps.
Other parliaments provide insights. In NSW and Victoria there are proposals to appoint a Parliamentary Compliance Officer, or an Independent Commissioner, to receive and investigate complaints of misconduct. But there is disagreement about who should sanction parliamentarians if complaints are upheld. Should Parliament impose fines, force them to apologise or suspend them? Or should a commissioner have their own powers to impose sanctions? What if this clashes with the partisan interests of key actors and parties?
For more than 10 years the United Kingdom has had a ministerial code of conduct prohibiting bullying and harassment. There is an Independent Adviser who investigates and reports on ministers' conduct. However, the Independent Adviser recently resigned, after Prime Minster Boris Johnson overturned his report that a prominent minister had engaged in bullying conduct.
Something that could be copied from the UK, however, is the Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service, which includes a dedicated mental health service to support parliamentarians and their staff. The Brittany Higgins case tells us more support is sorely needed.
Designing new frameworks to protect staffers will not be easy. We must hope the political will exists to make changes.
- Dr Maria Maley is a senior lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University.
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