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Apr 23, 2012

Rats, rorters and toxic political workplaces

Don't expect the media to join the dots on the Slipper allegations and wonder why MPs' offices are such toxic workplaces.

What price would Labor pay for elevating a man like Peter Slipper, we wondered last November. Labor’s profound lack of judgment in relying on a man with a history like Slipper’s was obvious for all to see at the time.

But then, Julia Gillard went one further and used the breathing space Slipper afforded to alienate Andrew Wilkie over poker machine reform, making trouble for the government down the track in the event Slipper, Craig Thomson or anyone other Labor MP hit the fence.

Increasingly, Gillard reminds me of Nick Greiner. Both began their premierships in majority government and ended up with hung parliaments. Like Greiner, Gillard has racked up some substantial reforms, although Greiner’s record was significantly better. But, most importantly, both seemed to lose their capacity for political judgment and began making ultimately self-destructive decisions.

But the question raised by the latest allegations about Slipper, and they remain only allegations rejected by him, is one that goes to all parties in Parliament. Why do they tolerate MPs who behave poorly, especially when it is exactly those MPs who are most likely to defect? Labor shielded the corrupt Mal Colston for years. It was only after he ratted on his party that they found the wherewithal to pursue him for his rorting of expenses.

The Coalition tolerated Slipper for years despite repeated problems with his travel expenses (including having to pay back $20,000), a string of unsavoury incidents and a defection from the Nationals to the Liberals. Queensland Labor has its own history of tolerating poor behaviour by MPs. One former Queensland state MP, Ronan Lee, faced serious claims about his treatment of staff, particularly young female staff, and disputes in his office. Lee later defected to the Greens. He later denied any wrongdoing.

Each party, in turn, faces questions about why they accepted turncoats into their ranks or rewarded them. The Howard government found shielding Colston a constant burden. Slipper is now making life a misery for Labor. Eager to claim the party’s first Queensland state MP, Bob Brown himself went to Brisbane to welcome Ronan Lee (who, incidentally, held decidedly unGreen views on abortion) into the fold in 2008, despite the Greens being warned about his history.

In each case, the lesson is the same: these MPs end up causing more trouble than they’re worth to both their originating parties and those whom they benefit with defection.

A persistent theme is that these sorts of MPs treat their staff poorly. Colston blamed his office manager (later, state Labor MP) Christine Smith for some of his travel expense rorts in 1997. Lee churned through so many staff the Queensland parliament used a temp agency to keep him supplied. Now Slipper is accused of harassing staff.

The claims against Slipper may not be proved. But unfortunately, poor treatment of staff, and particularly electoral officers, is widespread right across politics. Stories of abuse, bullying and worse come and go in the media without anyone ever connecting the dots and wondering why politicians’ offices are such toxic workplaces. There is a long list of casualties of politicians in the community, former staff members who bear the scars of their treatment. Some are unable to ever work again.

It’s not in the interests of parliaments to address the problem, and politicians prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist. And political journalists can’t be bothered stepping back and investigating whether there’s a systemic problem.

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58 thoughts on “Rats, rorters and toxic political workplaces

  1. Michael


    She’s a lot of things but a Nick Greiner she ain’t!!!

  2. Jimmy

    Is it just me who finds the timing of these allegations strange, I mean they are hardly new most relating to 2010.

    Is it all designed to ruin the govt’s budget week when parliament resumes?

  3. Michael de Angelos

    So gossip now passes as political comment.

    Despite it just being ‘allegations’ past gossip is re-cycled as though it is truth.

    You may as well ask what Australians will tolerate if they are prepared to vote for a man who has questions to answer over the jailing of Pauline Hanson, a person whos epolicies I abhored yet did not deserve the political machinations that put her in prison.

    Ditto voting for a man who was always seated to the right of the man who took us to 2 wars with contries that have never harmed us and in which tens of thousands of innocent souls died.

    What a country we live in-one where power may rely on a few text messages.

  4. Edward James

    The very poor work product from our elected representatives across the board is a problem of our own making. Journalist who won’t join the dots because they enjoy working with the drops they get from politicians are also voters and tax payers. The conduct of the Labor Party during the long drawn out exposure and eventual prosecution of the Labor MP for Swansea Milton the horrible Orkopolous who was certainly abusing his power. Is being repeated at the Federal Level of government under the oversight of hundreds of our elected representatives. The sorts of political sins against the peoples will continue while Labor party members and supporters are comfortable being led by an identifed liar. Edward James

  5. Microseris

    Gillards judgement has a Inspector Clouseau quality about it. An unhappy knack of turning any opportunity into a sh*t sandwich.

  6. Arty

    “Like Greiner, Gillard has racked up some substantial reforms, although Greiner’s record was significantly better. “

    An unsupported statement redundant to an interesting observation about tolerance of loose political canons.

  7. bluepoppy

    It is not only true of political staffers, but of public servants who are under pressure because of their Minister’s behaviour or choices and who face brick walls and/or mistreatment if they speak out about gross mismanagement and failures in duty of care. It is difficult because there is such an entrenched culture of cover-up, that pressure alone affects people at all levels. It also highlights how many people in positions of power across government are ill-equipped to manage people.

    If these allegations are unproven or prove false, it still remains that Slipper was a decidely bad choice and reflects poorly on Gillard’s integrity, and with the 24 media cycle, it is those poor decisions that will be at the forefront, despite some good policy decisions.

  8. The Pav

    Curiously enough there seems to be some significant comment that he was actually doing a good job as speaker

  9. mikeb

    I think JG made a smart move in “recruiting” Slipper as she has plenty of ways of turning it back onto the coalition. Getting Wilkie offside however smacks of duplicity and might come back to bite her. A case of he who laughs last…………..

  10. Meski

    I doubt that you should expect energetic investigation from Labor over this.

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