Bad conduct is tolerated, normalised. This is not a normal workplace


It starts innocently. I have heard of a Minister demanding their staff run their baths or collect their children from school. There was the story of the policy advisers being told to scoop up dirty gym gear and drop it at the dry cleaners. Another staffer told of being sent on a trip to Myer to pick up some underwear for a forgetful boss who had landed in Canberra without any jocks. While demeaning, most staff accept that these trivial tasks are part of the job.

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Then there are those more serious cases where staplers have been propelled at the skulls of an underperforming ministerial staff or young women are propositioned by old male bosses late at night.

But secrets are kept secret, and incidents are managed, not resolved.

Unlike normal workplaces, politicians can’t be easily removed, so these issues need to be managed. Their mandate from voters does not entitle them to bully or harass, but when they do, staff usually stay mum on the promise they’ll be looked after or rewarded for playing the game.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during question time.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

This culture cascades from the top, seeping into the foundations of Parliament House and creating a protective fortress for all those inside who misbehave. Senior staff can also become intoxicated by the closeness to power and start to play by the same rules.

A sense of loyalty creates a culture of silence and deference, which means even the poorest behaviour is concealed.

Not every politician or staffer adopts this attitude. Sadly, those that do outnumber the ones that don’t.

This in no way excuses the treatment of former Liberal Staffer Brittany Higgins who survived a brutal rape in a ministerial suite, just metres from the Cabinet room. But it does go some way to explaining how it remained under wraps for so long.

No one had to tell Brittany to stay quiet. Four weeks at Parliament House was long enough for her to realise that speaking up would not help her hang on to her “dream job”. She wants change and it’s the least she deserves.

Sadly, simply airing this shocking tale won’t change the culture of Parliament House. Promised structural reforms including a code of conduct and clear complaints procedures will help.

At the same time as Canberra embarks on the process of reform, Victoria has taken a massive step toward stamping out bad behaviour by proposing a new Commissioner to punish poorly behaved pollies.

In an unprecedented move, state MPs are considering a plan to appoint a new Commissioner who would be given the power to fine, suspend or expel MPs found guilty of misconduct. Until now, the only way to boot an unwanted politician from their seat was to vote them out of Parliament or for the house to debate their expulsion.

If this new system is adopted, it will send a message to MPs that title and rank are no safeguard against poor behaviour. Even if these powers are never used, the threat of expulsion should deter bad behaviour and begin the long, slow process of changing the culture.

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While the Victorian Parliament should be applauded for considering new protections for staff, the decision to appoint an unelected commissioner to potentially dismiss elected representatives should not be taken lightly.

As voters we will be told this power won’t be abused. There is little doubt expulsion will only be reserved for the most brutal cases of harassment and bullying, as it should be. But it risks setting a dangerous precedent.

MPs from both sides of politics believe that giving a Commissioner the power to bypass Parliament and expel misbehaving MPs will avoid the need for a public debate about private workplace matters which could be embarrassing and harmful to any victims. This is true. But the consequences of handing over power to a statutory body could be worse.

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