(Image: Unsplash/Michael)

This article was written by a former political staffer who worked for her local MP for 18 months. She joined the team as a way of serving her community but ended up shocked and disappointed by the experience.

This is the third part in a series. Read other insiders’ views on ministerial mismanagement and abuse here and here.

As a survivor of sexual assault I am regularly “triggered” by stories like those of brave Brittany Higgins, but this past week I have found myself yelling at the television whenever the “rape in Parliament House” story is mentioned for a very different reason.

Rape is a heinous crime that cannot be understated, but Brittany’s courage and determination have inspired me to speak up, not about sexual assault, but about what I now call “Staffer Syndrome”.

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I am a mature professional woman with a wonderful career behind me. I decided to give up my job as a successful journalist, editor and managing editor of over 30 years to work for my local MP. I did so in the belief that our community and the party she represents could benefit from my skills, my professional experience, and my life experience.

It only took a couple of weeks working in the electoral office to realise it was a toxic and dysfunctional environment lacking leadership, cohesion and support. Within weeks the MP stood over me in front of my co-workers and chastised me for listening to the local ABC news that morning instead of Radio National. I was minutes away from getting the RN transcript she was so anxious about but was told it was “too late” — she was no longer interested.

I can still feel the emotion welling up in my chest as I write this. That was the first of many instances of the MP bullying, gaslighting and then ghosting me over the 18 months I worked for her.

Around 15 people had left the office for similar reasons between 2016 and 2019 but I didn’t know that when I took the job. The public persona I had known before taking the position was completely different to the person in the office or on the end of a text or email at all hours of the day and night. My professional judgement and confidence were eroded daily.

One of the incentives for taking the job was the potential to work in Parliament House. I went once. I was verbally abused in front of another parliamentary staffer by the MP and spent 30 minutes in her parliamentary bathroom crying — something I hadn’t done at work since I was in my early 20s.

When COVID hit, many MPs closed their electoral offices — but not this one. I have a pre-existing medical condition so my doctor urged me to work from home. The bullying stopped but the exclusion started.

Ten to 20 calls a day plus texts and emails reduced to nil as soon as I started working from home. I was suddenly left out of key decisions and projects that I would have been in the middle of. I was “ghosted” for accepting medical advice over loyalty to the MP.

The isolation was overwhelming. I’d worked from home successfully in the past as a freelancer and contributor and always felt like a valued part of a team and had good relationships with my managers.

The last straw came when my elderly neighbour passed away. She had been my daughters’ nanny and a dear friend for 20 years. Her husband asked if I would write something to read at her funeral. I got clearance from my doctor to attend. I asked my MP for permission which was given but with an implication that if I was well enough to go to a funeral (even a COVID-safe one) I should be fit to work in the EO.

I called my union who told me to document what I’d been through to determine whether I had grounds for an official complaint. I called the Department of Finance help desk who told me they discouraged official complaints. I should “work through the issues and rebuild my relationship with my member” as my job, although covered by the MOP(S) Act, was a matter for my MP. They did provide workplace counselling.

I was relieved when my union validated that I’d been bullied and should go ahead with a formal complaint. I then made the mistake of agreeing, in good faith, to mediation without a support person. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.

I entered mediation to come to an agreement so I could keep my job. The MP came prepared to destroy my professional confidence and she succeeded. Days later I realised the MP had exercised a similar level of power and control over me as the perpetrator of my sexual assault many years earlier. I was not surprised by the Four Corners “Inside the Canberra Bubble” story last year or Brittany’s latest disclosures.

By the time of mediation I’d used up my quota of workplace counselling and was seeing another counsellor at my own expense. I was diagnosed with extreme anxiety and told to take time off. I’d never been anxious before.

My experience is not isolated. I have spoken with other current and former staffers who’ve endured similar treatment. There are dysfunctional electoral offices all over the country where people young and old are at the mercy of very powerful elected representatives. This is the case across the political spectrum and women can be as lethal to their staff as men.

Many MPs and senators, federal and state, have no managerial experience and yet they are given total control over electoral staff — staff paid for by the public purse.

This system enables widespread bullying and harassment without redress. It enables rape. Major and minor parties and independents hide behind the federal MOP(S) Act or the state equivalent. It needs to be reformed.

A partisan enquiry by the PM’s department is not going to cut it; nor will the politicisation of the issue by the opposition.

Damaged staffers need to keep speaking out until the system is reformed. Good and intelligent people are attracted to these positions out of a desire to serve the public.

They are usually the ones chewed up and spat out while the party hacks learn how to play the game and end up with safe seats, cabinet positions, and their own staff to bully.