There is strong evidence that there is a widespread problem of bullying and harassment in the offices of Queensland Labor MPs.
Not a majority of MPs, by any means. Many MPs attract long-serving and fanatically loyal staff. But the ongoing emergence of stories of wrecked lives and compensation payouts to former electorate office staff suggests it is more than the occasional bad apple like Merri Rose.
There are two systemic problems at work in Queensland. One is by no means unique to the state. It is that elections – particularly landslide elections that yield surprise successes and deliver MPs whom parties had not expected to get up — are no preparation for many of the tasks required of MPs. One of those is to manage staff in the difficult work environment that an electorate office — frequently first port of call for the dispossessed, the needy and the indigent — usually is. Another is to manage their access to taxpayer resources.
These aren’t skills you can pick up in a couple of hours in an Orientation For New MPs morning. Most people need time and practice to learn how to manage people. A number of MPs in the Beattie Government, and Ronan Lee and Merri Rose are excellent examples, had minimal experience at pretty much anything before becoming MPs. But they were given large salaries, the status and profile of public office and taxpayer resources and no guidance or support on how to cope. Oversight and accountability was minimal. They’re normal people, with the normal range of issues and problems, thrust into a very abnormal environment. It’s no wonder some of them lost control.
But the other problem appears more endemic to the Queensland ALP. A consistent theme in the instances of bullying is the unwillingness of then-Premier Beattie to counsel or manage MPs effectively. A former Beattie Minister has told Crikey of being one of several ministers who told Beattie they felt out of their depth and that the Queensland ALP factional system was not delivering them quality staff. Beattie declined to provide assistance. The Merri Rose case shows Beattie’s judgement was similarly flawed when faced with evidence of a favoured Minister failing to cope.
The approach adopted by the Beattie Government – adopted by default, possibly without any thought for the long-term implications of it — was to have Queensland Parliament (remember, these are taxpayer-funded staff, not party-funded staff) pay out employees, usually with confidentiality clauses, rather than try to fix the system. A rigorous code of conduct could have been imposed on MPs. There could have been compulsory training for new MPs, that would give them a semblance of management skills.
Someone, in short, could have taken responsibility.
Instead, at the bidding of the Queensland Government, Queensland Parliament’s Human Resources area has cycled through large numbers of staffing casualties, handing out compensation, shuffling staff around, covering up for errant MPs.
This isn’t just a Queensland problem. Think Gillian Sneddon and Troy Buswell, for starters. There is evidence that Federal MPs are significantly better at managing staff, most likely because the road to a federal seat is longer and more contested. But anyone who thinks the same problems aren’t going on across the country has no idea. Nevertheless, it’s time Queensland Labor stopped hiding the problem and accepted responsibility for the MPs it puts into State politics.