Emma Husar bullying

Labor MP Emma Husar

Regardless of the outcome of the ALP’s internal investigation into Western Sydney MP Emma Husar’s workplace and staff management, the allegations made against her paint a familiar picture about how toxic political workplaces can be.

The offices of politicians have several characteristics that predispose them to being more likely to feature bullying and harassment. That doesn’t mean many politicians don’t inspire great loyalty, affection and respect from their staff. Working for a committed and dynamic politician can be a truly uplifting experience. But working for the wrong one — and there are many of those at federal and state level — can wreck your life.

First, MPs can’t be sacked. Unless you’re the CEO, it is becoming harder for company executives to survive sexual harassment or bullying allegations. Corporations have begun to understand the price they pay if they fail to act to deal with bullies and harassers — although there’s still a long, long way to go. But no such progress is even possible in political offices. While MPs are vulnerable to paying a political price for allegations of harassment and bullying, they literally can’t be sacked except in the most extreme of circumstances. They occupy an office that has a different form of accountability than most of us who must account to managers, senior managers or shareholders for our behaviour.

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Second, lower house MPs’ offices are usually high-pressure workplaces. The job is demanding of time and energy, with long hours expected and weekend work. Constituents come to MPs with all kinds of problems, often at the end of their tether after failing to get help elsewhere. Many workplaces, of course, come with long hours and heavy demands, but MPs combine the roles of social service, PR outlets and travelling salespeople.

Third, MPs and their staff often have a more than purely professional relationship. Many people working for MPs — and most who work for ministers — are political colleagues, who are there not just because it’s a job but because of their commitment to a political party. Few people are likely to be deterred from reporting harassment because it might make a corporate employer look bad, but the urge to downplay things for the good of a political party is very strong, with staffers sometimes expected to take a bullet for the cause, with the understanding they’ll be rewarded later. The result is less pressure from a party on individual MPs to curb their own behaviour.

Fourth, politics attracts people with egos. There are plenty of introverts in what you’d assume is an extroverted profession, but few shrinking violets due to the nature of public office. This is particularly true in the major parties where preselection for winnable seats is usually strongly contested. Sometimes these are people who have a rather instrumentalist view of other people and, particularly, their staff.

The combination of these factors means that political workplaces are more likely to see bullying and harassment, even if the majority of politicians on all sides are decent, professional people to work with. It means there’s more pressure on staff to suffer in silence, and it also means politicians will rarely lose their jobs — even if they are revealed to have behaved badly — unless it becomes a political imperative for their party to dump them.

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