parliament house
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

This article was written by a former political staffer who spent 10 years working for state and federal MPs. She has requested anonymity.

This is the fourth part in a series. Read another insider’s view on ministerial mismanagement and abuse here.

When I started working for a newly elected MP, I sensed she was overwhelmed by the job. She would have staff prepare pages of background notes for every meeting, even a simple meet and greet. She would always turn up late but leave the meeting with a long list of action items.

She once decided to contact the host of a popular ABC gardening program to donate plants for a community project — she didn’t know them, she just liked the show and thought it would make a good photo opportunity. At first, I liked these “out of the box” ideas, but the staff soon came to realise they couldn’t spend hours chasing her random directives and still meet their regular workload.

Backbench MPs generally have four core staff members. At least 19 people have worked for this MP in four years. I lasted three — one of the longest stints.

For me, the problems started when an office manager left and I was asked to step in temporarily, in addition to my existing full-time role. I pretty soon realised her expectations were unrealistic — I would receive phone calls, emails and text messages at all hours and it was not unusual to start the day with dozens of emails from her, each one requiring action and some having been sent at 1am, 2am etc.

Letters would take weeks to be finalised, having been sent back for rewrites over and over again. Many were never sent at all; they were out of date by the time they were approved. She found making decisions difficult and staff could wait weeks for an answer on important matters. I don’t think any of us felt clear on the goals or direction of the office.

When I raised this, she dismissed my concerns. In fact, she said we weren’t busy and should be able to do more. I never understood her view; I had worked for a decade for a minister and other MPs, so I knew how an electorate office should function. My colleagues and I were working hard and producing quality outcomes. None of this was good enough for her.

She would react angrily to things I felt were out of my control. She once chastised me for sending a photo to the local paper because she thought it made her arms look fat. Other staff were told to photoshop parts of her body she didn’t like. The photo on her promotional material was more than 10 years old but she refused to update it.

A colleague disclosed their pregnancy to me but wanted to wait to let the MP know. I will never forget my boss angrily demanding I tell her while we were in the middle of a public event. She said it was obvious because the staff member was sick all the time and as the office manager I should tell her if I knew. I told her but stressed that the staff member hadn’t formally advised her as the employer. I was mortified when, soon after, she breezed into the office and congratulated my colleague on their pregnancy, letting them know it was me who had shared the good news.

She was obsessed with tiny details, never the bigger picture. There was always something she wasn’t happy with, so her outbursts were usually over something minor. I was constantly criticised but struggled to understand how I could do better or why the minutiae mattered.

Due to the high staff turnover, we were chronically understaffed. There were always vacant positions to fill but most of the time she either couldn’t make a decision or waited for direction from the party. I worked in the dual role for as long as I could, but with no indication a permanent arrangement would be made or my workload would be reduced, I made the decision to step back. By this stage I was aware my wellbeing had suffered and my family and friends were worried. I was working all hours of the day and night, and on weekends. I was exhausted.

She agreed to me working in a part-time position, but it caused a major shift in our relationship. From then on, she barely spoke to me. She would avoid eye contact. We communicated mostly via email and I was no longer involved in any decision making or planning in the office.

I later discovered she didn’t lodge my new contract for several weeks. I wasn’t paid correctly, and other staff weren’t either — one colleague resigned over constant pay errors, another went more than a month without a wage. I made a complaint to the Department of Finance about it but they didn’t intervene. We just had to wait until she fixed it.

Eventually I was made redundant. I contacted my union for advice, and they were helpful, but they don’t really have a presence in MPs offices. I wanted representation as we negotiated the terms of the redundancy, but my boss simply called me in to her office one day without warning. When I suggested we wait till a delegate could join us I was told that wasn’t necessary. The meeting happened then and there. When I tried to address the issues I had around my wellbeing I broke down in tears. I left without saying the things I desperately wanted to say.

So many women are now revealing the trauma they’ve suffered working in this environment, and my experience pales in comparison to theirs. Addressing the degradation, sexual harassment, and abuse of women working in parliament is a priority.

But there’s a broader problem with bullying, intimidation and harassment in parliamentary offices and the perpetrators can be men or women. There is a scale of wrongdoing but it’s all happening within the same framework — and that’s what needs to change.

This week the ALP revealed their plans to refer complaints of bullying, harassment and assault to their head office and affiliates. This is not a solution. It’s just more of the same.

When I left that office I contacted the Department of Finance to raise concerns about the way staff are treated. I never heard back. I keep in contact with others who have, or continue, to work there and from what I can tell, things are worse. I know of at least one staff member who took a formal bullying complaint about her to the department, the whip, and the party, but as far as I know nothing was done.

Every member and senator is responsible for the culture of their workplace — one in which crimes of the most horrific type are being committed. But the Parliament has an opportunity to fix it. They can endorse a truly independent complaints process. This body needs to be visible in the offices of every parliamentarian, reminding them and their staff of the professional standards expected of them.

There need to be consequences for bad behaviour.

Peter Fray

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