Almost every public servant who interacts regularly with a minister's office has observed or heard about bad behaviour by ministerial staffers. Some will even have seen unacceptable workplace behaviours by ministers themselves. Instances of bullying, harassment and verbal abuse are commonplace.
The public record does not indicate whether public servants have also been subjected to sexual assault. If there have been cases, they deserve to see the light. As we know, until recent events lifted the lid on parliamentary culture, information concerning such cases among staffers was routinely supressed or hidden. Cases involving public servants, had they occurred, would have received the same treatment.
It is conceivable though that there are fewer cases involving public servants because of the peculiar "Boys-Own" culture amongst some male staffers from privileged private school backgrounds, where parliamentary staff are "fair game" and public servants "off limits". The language from game hunting is deliberate: other staffers, especially young women, are viewed as prey to be hunted and bagged. Indeed, reportedly some senior staffers actually tally up the number of junior staffers with whom they have sex, in a similar fashion to hunters keeping track of their kills. That's something for further investigation in one of the several inquiries currently underway.
The terms of reference for the inquiry being conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins into Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces are broad. Although the focus is primarily on staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (commonly known as the MOP(S) Act) the terms of reference extend to "staff working within the Parliament of Australia". This ought to be read as including public servants who have to go into Parliament House and meet with ministers and their staff in the course of their public service work, together with a range of others including Finance department staff who administer pay and conditions and public servants in both Canberra and the regions who have contact with parliamentarians and their staff at public events, media stunts and launches, and similar situations.
In cases where there are negative interactions between ministerial staff and public servants there is a role for senior public managers to manage the situation, sometimes taking the options of escalating the matter to the minister or minister's chief of staff. Anecdotally it appears many junior public servants these days question whether senior managers have been appointed for being politically loyal to the government. If so, they will be sceptical about whether those managers will intervene appropriately. A more positive assumption is that most senior managers do see it as important to protect their staff from inappropriate behaviour by ministerial staff. This would make sense: it is vital for maintaining morale that this be done.
There can be difficult questions of judgment in relation to claims of ministerial staffers bullying public servants. Sometimes the examples are clear and obvious - abusive language, disparaging comments, throwing things (files, papers, staplers, coffee cups).
Something far more common, and more difficult to resolve, is where there are differences of opinion over deadlines. For public servants, a staffer insisting on an extremely tight deadline can be seen as unreasonable, amounting to harassment. For ministerial staff under intense political pressure, in a parliamentary hothouse where an hour's delay can seem like weeks, working to tight deadlines is simply business as usual. In those instances, judgment applied by experienced and senior public servants is required: can the work be done within the deadline, are there shortcuts or assumptions that can legitimately be made to reduce the workload required, is there scope for compromise.
Another source of ethical and professional questions is the role of public servants who work in the parliament - the staff of the parliamentary departments, and the departmental staff working on secondments or as departmental liaison officers. The DLO is a crucial conduit of information between a department and the minister's office, managing the flow of papers and people between the two. A DLO is in a position to observe most of what goes on the office. We have to assume, given the revelations of bad behaviour that have emerged over the past month, that many DLOs will have seen harassment and abuse. The difficult moral question is whether they had a duty to speak up and report it.
To date, the unwritten convention has been no. What happens in a minister's office (if it does not involve departmental liaison) stays secret and is not reported on by the DLO. It would make the role of the DLO extremely fraught if they were expected to report misbehaviour - other ministerial staff would see them as spies and informants and shun them, undermining their effectiveness in the liaison work. That said, there is a moral argument that more openness would help prevent the kinds of extreme abuse that have come to light recently. The best answer would be that this is reported confidentially and easily within the parliament itself. That is, it would not be expected of public servants because it would be straightforward and low risk for affected political staff to make their own reports.
That is a large part of the problem at present. Cases of bad behaviour remain secret because reporting them is seen as career threatening for anyone involved, whether staffer or public servant. While they remain hidden they multiply. Offenders re-offend with impunity. If there's one thing that the inquiries can come up with to remedy the current problems with the culture of the parliament it would be a simple, confidential, and above all safe system of reporting and remedying the cases of abuse. Such a system should be open not only to parliamentarians and parliamentary staff but to public servants who have to interact with them.
- Stephen Bartos is a former Finance Department deputy secretary.