Flat White

Can Parliament House become a less ugly workplace?

17 February 2021

4:44 PM

17 February 2021

4:44 PM

Federal parliament this week has been rocked by revelations by a former adviser to the now Defence minister, Linda Reynolds, that she was sexually assaulted in the minister’s office two years ago.

The staffer’s ordeal was splashed across the media and made the centre of parliamentary attacks by the opposition and Greens against the Prime Minister, Senator Reynolds and the government’s response to the allegations.

Genuinely upset, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is at least moving fast to ensure that what was allegedly done to her cannot happen again.

As Canberra veteran Tina Faulk wrote in her Flat White article yesterday, nobody is conscripted to work in federal politics.  It is a surreal working environment, especially when parliament sits.  You can be in your windowless office or cubicle from before dawn until the last thing at night, and never see natural daylight.  You are at the beck and call of your minister or MP.  Yes, some MPs and staff check out their morals when checking in their luggage when flying to Canberra. Those who party, party hard. And, as Faulk points out, alcohol or drug-fuelled misbehaviour is common.

But not universal.  The assault Senator Reynolds’s staffer allegedly suffered is not the norm.  The sexual shenanigans that Four Corners last December implied were normal in the Canberra hothouse aren’t either.

That’s not to say ugly, even criminal, behaviours don’t happen. They do. But most parliamentary and ministerial staff in Parliament House are decent people, treat their colleagues as well as their bosses with kindness and respect, and support each other, especially in times of intense pressure and personal stress.

The tragedy in this staffer’s case is that she not only was assaulted and abused, but the support she deserved, and sought, failed her, even when people thought they were acting with the best intentions.

Her ordeal, however, highlights that protections for parliamentary staff from evil and noxious behaviours are pathetic. They have little fallback when a workplace incident, bullying behaviour or, as in this case, worse occurs. Covering legislation and their employment contracts make clear staffers serve at the pleasure of their minister or MP, and can be given the flick simply because their employer purports to lose confidence in them.  The dice are loaded against staff if something goes wrong, and this courageous staffer sadly isn’t the first who felt compelled to resign when others should have been held accountable for their wrongful actions.

Mr Morrison has taken commendable steps to help the woman and change the parliamentary culture. But good intentions are nothing if the legislated conditions of staffers’ employment continue to treat them as indentured servants and playthings of the political system, with no effective avenues of redress when things go wrong.

Having worked eight years on Capital Hill myself, it never fails to surprise me that so many MPs who either avoid or handball staff problems or, too often, just treat staffers like the proverbial, once were staffers themselves. In the Upstairs, Downstairs world of politics, memories of life below stairs quickly fade in the Members Dining Room.

That must change.

This piece originally appeared in the Spectator Australia’s Morning Double Shot email. Sign up and make sure you don’t miss out here

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