Flat White

Three rules for young staffers – and a better Canberra

12 March 2021

4:00 AM

12 March 2021

4:00 AM

Rules are awesome.

They are a safety net that minimises risk to ourselves and to others. They give us a map when in uncharted territory. They give us a way to decide on issues that’s beyond the limitations of our often flawed, stressed or fragile ego’s. They are meant to reflect our beliefs and values and how we allocate resources around them as a society or organisation.

When designed well, rules reduce uncertainty, arbitrariness and inequity.

Having been a staffer, campaigner and candidate in and around politics for around 17 years, when I’ve been reading the news out of Canberra the last few weeks, I’ve thought about a whole system’s lack of clarity or even failure around rule-making and rule-respecting.

It is of course ironic or even depressing because we speak of our nation’s highest law-making body. But sadly it’s not surprising when we consider, for example, that doctors are known to be awful at looking after their own health.

In the case of Brittany Higgins, and regardless of determination of any final criminal aspects, we can already reasonably conclude:

  • It would be better for the institution of Parliament to have stronger rules about abuse, harassment, bullying, gender equality, and how such aspects are reported and addressed, and who has what role and responsibility;
  • It would be better for impacted people to be involved in co-designing such new rules, and;
  • It would be better for people to be trained and immersed in a new workplace culture that enshrines respect in rules and procedures.

But, frankly, no one needs to wait in terms of workplace respect, decency and due process.

Over the years, because there weren’t always established rules available for the political class, I sought guidance in those with experience of similar contexts: Sun Tzu, Vince Lombardi, Edward DeBono, the Code of the Bushido and it’s principles for the life of a samurai — the ultimate public servant — made me especially think.


So, I started to codify some specific ‘laws’ based on Australian politics that I think are important — for one’s conduct in the political arena, but also other business and organisational settings. These are “The Thirty Three Laws of the Hack for the Young”.

In part, I wrote and occasionally distributed them to my teams and colleagues to help young minders be good at their jobs and avoid harm to themselves or others.

Today, I’m picking out three Laws — all written a long time ago — that are perhaps poignant in our current era.

Law #23: Never sleep with colleagues

Over a long-term career, I have seen four couples sustain their relationships following their initial romances — usually hidden — in political workplaces. Over a long-term career, I have seen countless damage and heartache from combining sex with high-level stress and decision-making contexts. It far and away outweighs the happiness of those four lucky couples.

Celibacy needs to be the permanent state of a political office.

Law #7: Listen – deeply and truly

Indeed, you can’t even do something useful — say dismantle and repair your washing machine – but you think you can contribute to decisions that impact on millions of people? Nah.

The only way not to really fuck up is to listen with everything you’ve got and from a position of total humility. For facts, for nuance, for the views of genuine wonks, for emotion, for pain.

Listening is the best way to be respectful. Listening gets you to what is substance rather than posturing. Listening lets to understand and work with people of diverse backgrounds, and different positions in the power structure.

Listening is what makes you different from every dickhead in the room. Because it’s real leadership.

Law #30: If you’re the story, there’s a problem

If you even appear in the background at a media conference, you owe your colleagues a slab of beer. If heaven forbid you ever put yourself in a position of being newsworthy for a reason of personal misconduct or indiscretion or just drinking too much on a sitting night, you owe yourself a kick up the arse and redress to those on who you have impacted.

Remember. You are not “you” anymore. When you chose public life — and that’s what you’ve done — you’ve chosen duty and service above all else. Duty is hard, but it gets things done and ultimately keeps you — the real “you” — sane and safe.

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