Sunday, April 4, 2021
Politics

‘MPs get away with it because they promote secrecy’

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Bullies and abusers don’t do it because they don’t know it’s wrong — they do it because they can get away with it, writes a former staffer.

(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

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 second part in a series. Read another insider’s view on ministerial mismanagement and abuse here.

I was 20 when I started working in a federal MP’s office. I was a uni student and active in the party, but didn’t have any real professional experience. I saw it as a huge privilege to work so close to power.

I went on to spend the next 10 years working for a cabinet minister, shadow minister and local MPs. I was dedicated to the party and the people I worked for.

I regret it immensely.

I saw
office resources used for political campaigns, not just for the MPs themselves
but for whatever candidate or campaign the party was pushing. I knew there were
rules around this kind of expenditure, but was told that every office broke
them. Everyone around me accepted it, so I did too.

Once, a
neighbouring office refused to contribute to a party campaign and I saw how
they were derided, accused of not being part of the team. The hyper-partisanship
and rule breaking nature of politics is deeply ingrained in local offices.

As is so often the case in politics, a colleague I worked with — the person who recruited me and groomed me into the industry — made their way through the ranks and eventually became a state MP. I was hired as her electorate office manager. In a few short years, she was promoted to the front bench.

As an employer she had unreasonable expectations of her staff. She would ask us to do things that were wildly outside our skill set or simply inappropriate in a public office.

She asked
her media adviser to design an app for her to communicate with constituents,
despite them having no background in IT or app development. She would ask staff
to complete her children’s homework and university assignments.

She once
started a meeting with a group of male health care workers by talking about my
outfit. She went around the table and asked each, one by one, if they thought I
was “overdressed”.

She volunteered to be secretary of a local community organisation, but directed the staff to do all the work. This included writing grant applications for a program she administered. Grants were never given out by need; she would choose the recipients based on how they could best promote her in the community.

The warmth
and friendliness she showed to the community would evaporate as soon as the
office doors closed behind her. She would speak aggressively to me, blaming me
for everything that went wrong. She belittled me. I was constantly told I would
not be employed elsewhere and I was lucky to receive the salary I was on. I
often felt like she hated me. I was anxious all the time.

I was
terrified to tell her of my first pregnancy. I didn’t know how she would react
to me taking maternity leave. She demanded her staff be constantly available
and we rarely took leave. When I told her, she increased my workload. I had a
complicated pregnancy but was routinely asked to travel and attend meetings
after hours. Many nights I would arrive home after 11pm.

In the final stages of my pregnancy my baby’s health became critical. It became harder to schedule medical appointments outside of work hours. One day I was forced to close the office for a couple of hours to attend an urgent antenatal appointment, only to receive an abusive text message from my boss demanding it never happen again. She was at home packing for a family holiday and couldn’t step in to cover the staff shortage.

My waters
broke late one night while I was alone in the office. I was scrambling to get
everything done before I left, leaving notes for my colleagues while amniotic
fluid sloshed around in my shoes.

My daughter was born by emergency c-section and was in intensive care for two weeks. My boss rang me the morning after the birth and told me she’d spoken to a nurse friend who would “look out for me”. The first time I saw my daughter, I also met her friend — she had been assigned as our nurse in the NICU.

While I was
pushed in a wheelchair to the ward, the nurse overheard a conversation between
my parents about my boss and how they blamed her for putting me under so much
stress. My anxiety was so intense I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Towards the
end of my maternity leave I asked to meet with my boss. I wanted to touch base
and have a general discussion on the direction of the office. I wanted to be
fully prepared when I returned. She agreed to meet me in Parliament and I
travelled down for the day. The meeting didn’t happen, she barely spoke to me
and spent her time reading documents instead.

A week after my return she tried to demote me, asking me to step in to the junior position in the office. She had decided to employ someone else in my role. There would be no change to my responsibilities, in fact she said “I require more from you”.

To compensate, she concocted an illegal scheme to supplement my wage by paying me a full time rate while allowing me to work part time hours. It was still a huge pay cut. The person she preferred in my role was the same age as me, with the same experience; the only difference between us was that I had two degrees and he had none. He also didn’t have a baby to care for.

Eventually I took a redundancy. I was paid out my entitlements and an extended notice period. I saw it as the best I could hope for when my boss had decided to get rid of me.

I was horrified this week listening to Brittany Higgins’ tell her story. My trauma pales in comparison to hers, but so much of what she describes as the culture in Parliament resonates with me.

Brittany
says when she told her chief of staff she’d been raped they asked her if she
intended to go to the police. They needed to know immediately. When I heard
that I was right back in the room with my boss, asking me to agree to a
demotion. She needed an answer, then and there.

We were
asked to make decisions with enormous consequences for our lives in a short
space of time. The people in positions of power didn’t care about us as
individuals, they wanted as much information as possible so they could
calculate their next move. Mitigate losses or damage, or take advantage of the
situation.

Bullies and abusers don’t do it because they don’t know it’s wrong — they do it because they can get away with it. Politicians get away with it because they promote secrecy and loyalty. Gaslighting. Fear of retribution. This culture will only start to change if people are exposed.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

Peter Fray

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