Now that the dust has settled and Troy Buswell has clung onto his leadership of the Western Australian Opposition, at least until the next lurid revelation of his “full life”, we can consider some of the less obvious aspects of his case.

The welfare of the so-far unnamed female staff member whose chair was the object of Buswell’s attentions has mostly been overlooked, although she revealed further details of this mental 16-year-old’s astonishing behaviour yesterday. But the humiliation of this woman, now completed by the Parliamentary party she worked for in its endorsement of Buswell’s continued leadership, isn’t exactly unique. Harassment and humiliation are not unknown in MPs’ offices, like any other workplace. However, what is different is the accountability of MPs for their behaviour, and the options for their staff – both of which are limited indeed compared to every other employer in the country.

The system for employment of politicians’ staff varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some, electorate officers are distinguished from political staff and advisers. In the Commonwealth, responsibility for employment of ministerial and MPs’ staff rests with the Prime Minister, rather than the Speaker of the Parliament as it does in a number of states. But common to all is the virtually unassailable position of politicians in workplace matters, and the lack of accountability for their treatment of staff.

The growth of ministerial staff – not public servants, but not funded by political parties either – has most commonly been seen as creating a governance problem, especially around the issue of accountability of staffers.

However, the uncertain status of staff, somewhere between that of the public service and paid party operatives, also has implications for how issues like harassment are handled. Because there is no independent responsibility for employment of staffers, resting either with the executive or with the Parliamentary Speaker, staff who have been subject to harassment or worse have limited recourse. This is especially the case at the Commonwealth level where, under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, employment can be terminated at any time. For aggrieved staffers who have not had a fair go, the only real recourse is going public in order to shame politicians into addressing their concerns.

The problem is most acute for electorate office staff, especially at the State level. Ministerial advisers, especially experienced ones, usually have in-demand skills, sectoral expertise or good contacts, and can move jobs more easily than electorate staff. The latter are more junior and tend to have less specialist skills, particularly given the wide variety of work they’re required to undertake in MPs’ offices. Many advisers are also party members with political ambitions of their own, making them more willing to endure difficult working conditions to get ahead.

The travails of Milton Orkopoulos’s electorate officer Gillian Sneddon and the Merri Rose bullying case in Queensland are only two known examples of a wider unreported, or under-reported, phenomenon of inappropriate workplace conduct by some MPs. In particular, Crikey is aware of well-founded claims that other Beattie Government Ministers routinely harassed electorate officers, leading to payouts – complete with confidentiality requirements – for the victims. There are also cases of former staffers committing suicide, or attempting suicide.

Political parties are aware of the potential damage that can be inflicted by aggrieved staffers. Under the Howard Government, a concerted effort was made to ensure ministerial advisers received a reasonable amount of protection, and they would be moved to other Ministers’ offices if workplace problems arose.

“It was run like a large corporation,” said one former adviser.

“They didn’t want the negative publicity of people complaining about ministers.”

As the Sneddon case demonstrates, however, if it is in a party’s interests to cut a staffer loose, then things can turn nightmarish for them. The current system, as established in most jurisdictions, relies on the good faith of political parties and politicians themselves to treat people working for them – party loyalists and ordinary workers alike – decently. And any system that relies on the goodwill of people to function effectively will fail, possibly frequently.

The only long-term solution – as with the issue of ministerial advisers’ accountability – is to formally recognise the existence of this emerging class of political workers, and codify both their rights and responsibilities.

This includes the establishment of independent – or more independent – responsibility for their employment, so that they are not reliant on the goodwill of political parties to protect them from errant MPs.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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