The reaction to Crikey’s revelations on Friday of the referral to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission of allegations relating to former Minister Merri Rose has predictably centred on the issue of her relationship with then-Premier Peter Beattie.

In fact, this is a secondary issue. Of greater concern than any amount of high level philandering, is the immensely toxic environment a Minister of the Crown created amongst her staff, especially when she allegedly asked them to help her conceal a relationship via illegal means, and the impact of that environment on the people expected to work in it.

The statement behind Queensland National MP Rob Messenger’s letter to the CMC illustrates this environment and the serious problem of the lack of accountability for politicians in relation to their staff.

The unsigned statement was prepared by Barbara Daddow, former personal secretary to Rose. Daddow died in May 2006 after suffering depression and severe stress arising from her time with Rose. Daddow had brought a Workcover action against Rose for bullying in 2003. It was initially unsuccessful, but was won on appeal by Daddow at the start of the 2004 state election campaign. Beattie dismissed Rose from the ministry simultaneously, citing claims she had faked expense claims.

Daddow had been offered a “stimulating and attractive” position by Rose, an old acquaintance, in 1998. According to the statement, Rose quickly came to rely heavily on Daddow, whom she treated as a close confidante, to organise both her professional activities and much of her personal life. In an incident not described in the statement, but told to a work colleague, Daddow claimed that Rose had called her in to her office one day to tell her that she’d “been looking for the ‘man of her dreams’ and he had been right under her nose”.

Rose was a frenetic socialiser, something which her portfolios of Tourism and Racing only encouraged. Daddow’s statement refers to the damage caused by Rose’s alcohol consumption and insistence that her staff join her when drinking. Rose also conducted at least two relationships that Daddow had to organise her schedule around. Rose was also, according to Daddow’s statement, unable to handle her ministerial responsibilities, leading her to “vent on department, ministerial and electorate staff”.

Despite conflicts with other staff, her statement says, Daddow became known as the only person who could handle Rose and her relationships. The stress of the heavy workload imposed on her was magnified, the statement says, by Rose’s requirement that she falsify records to conceal Rose’s relationship with Premier Peter Beattie, saying she had to “shred documents, sign off on invalid overseas, inter/intrastate trips, scheduled unofficial business as official business, process false parliamentary leave requests so that she could meet with the Premier on Parliamentary evenings”.

All of these remain only allegations before the Crime and Misconduct Commission. Some of Daddow’s claims were referred to the CMC prior to her death, but Daddow declined to cooperate with the Commission. Daddow’s statement, which responds to unseen statements by Rose and her staff, is clearly the work of a woman trying to justify herself against criticism by former colleagues. Much of it relates to the type of workplace tensions that affect most workplaces at various times. What is clear, however, is that Daddow found herself in a highly damaging environment with no one to turn to:

I did feel terrible and actually fearful of the outcome of colluding for years with Merri on many unethical, immoral and illegal activities. I feared her latest activities would most certainly lead to legal action against me … I couldn’t detail these concerns to the Chief of Staff, Rob Whiddon, Ministerial Services and certainly not the Premier — for obvious reasons. There was no management practices in place to handle the situation I had found myself in. I tried the union when I was on leave but all I was told was that if I worked for another organisation it would be different ie that something would be done.

This encapsulates the problems of current arrangements for political staff. Electorate office staff like Daddow do not have the protections of the Public Service, nor the transferable skills of ministerial advisers who can usually move to another job or right out of the political environment if they wish. They are directly exposed to politicians operating in highly stressful circumstances and who feel entitled to make extraordinary demands of those who work to them, whatever their public rhetoric about fair employment practices. There is virtually no accountability for their treatment except public exposure, as the case of Gillian Sneddon attests.

Ironically, the Daddow statement has resurfaced in circumstances that reflect the sort of mindset that creates victims such as Ms Daddow. Rob Messenger, the Nationals MP who has referred the matter to the CMC, did so against the explicit wishes of the former Rose staff member who provided the material and her own corroborating statement. The person had contacted Messenger to provide support for the latter’s Parliamentary campaign to provide greater security for public servants to speak to MPs. However, once Messenger obtained material relating to Merri Rose and Peter Beattie, he insisted on sending it to the CMC. Messenger has since claimed that the person concerned has a “psychological illness”.

From Kevin Rudd’s recent warning to the Public Service down to Belinda Neal’s need for anger management counselling, to State Governments that ignore the toll their ministers are inflicting on staff, there is a vast gulf between the cosy work-life balance rhetoric of our politicians and their demands on those who work to them. As the Daddow case demonstrates, that hypocrisy can have tragic consequences.

Listen to Rob Messenger speaking to Madonna King on Brisbane’s ABC 612 this morning.