Political staffers are a large group of workers, officially employed by federal or state governments: the Department of Finance federally and, in NSW, the Department of Parliamentary Services. They work in small offices, entirely dominated by the needs, demands and behaviour of their boss, with almost no recourse if the conduct is unreasonable. They are expected to work long hours and show immense dedication to the needs of their MP, the political party and the community they serve. But their jobs are precarious and unprotected, and they are often “spat out” when they are no longer useful.
As a university student in her early 20s, Katherine* was deeply involved in a political party when she was recruited to work in a federal member’s office. With little other work experience, she had no idea about appropriate workplace conditions.
She cries when she recounts her first pregnancy, which was difficult, with worrying complications. At the time, she was managing an electorate office. Instead of her MP easing her workload, it was increased. She took calls at all hours and was regularly asked to attend meetings that finished at 10pm. She was bullied. When she closed the office to attend an urgent doctor’s appointment, her MP berated and abused her. A week later, she went into early labour and her baby ended up in intensive care.
Katherine worries that she sacrificed the health of her child to meet her boss’s expectations. When she returned from maternity leave her MP tried to demote her. Having a baby to care for apparently showed insufficient commitment to the MP’s needs. After more than a decade’s service as a staffer she left, feeling cast aside. She had to begin her career again, at the lowest rung of the public service.
Louisa* had a successful career as a media adviser before burning out badly. Her final boss was a newly elected MP. Ambitious, inexperienced and overwhelmed by the job, the MP ran a chaotic office where staff turned over rapidly. Louisa was left performing multiple roles, her contract extended monthly. Recruitment for the vacant positions was fraught, with interference from party operatives. For months she was not paid correctly. She worked long hours, taking phone calls and responding to texts at all hours, and working on weekends. She was chastised if her work did not meet expectations. “I just kept thinking, if I work harder, if I do more, they will be happy,” she says. “But they were never happy, it was never enough.”
After being overworked and abused, belittled and criticised, Louisa took a redundancy. She felt the MP had “complete disregard” for her wellbeing. She has had counselling to deal with the psychological damage. She, too, took an entry-level position in the public service, but says her confidence is shot and she avoids taking on extra responsibility. She constantly questioned herself. When she left the job, Louisa contacted the Department of Finance raising workplace conduct issues and asking someone to contact her to discuss them. No one did.
One of the problems is that – federally – all political staffers are employed by the Department of Finance on behalf of ministers, MPs and senators. While they are Commonwealth employees, in taxpayer-funded jobs governed by the Fair Work Act and other work and safety legislation, in effect their employment is personal to the politician they work for. They are referred to as “personal staff” and ministers speak of their “private offices”.
Under the federal Members of Parliament (Staff) Act their job can be terminated at any time if the office is “restructured, calling for a different set of skills”. All that is needed is a letter from the MP stating they require a “different skill set”. Katherine and Louisa say there is virtually nothing stopping another staffer being immediately employed to do the same job.
Another legal reason for termination can be if the senator or member “has lost trust or confidence in the employee”. Staffers say this is why so few formally complain about poor workplace conduct and bullying: if they complain they could be immediately sacked on this ground. Invoking the workplace protections that exist for them is perilous.
Nor are they confident about raising these issues through party organisations. This is not an issue particular to one side of politics. The staffers I talk to say they believe the party’s priority is always its reputation, the likelihood of local MPs being re-elected, and factional power-play. The wellbeing of staff is collateral damage, crunched in this calculation.
In NSW, emblematic of the problems they face raising workplace issues is the state’s Code of Conduct for Members’ Staff, which mandates loyalty. It requires staff to “be loyal to their Member in the workplace, in the electorate and within the political party”. They must ensure their actions “do not detract from or disparage the Member’s reputation and role in Parliament and the electorate”. Sanctions for breaching the code include dismissal.
The Department of Finance – and its state-level counterparts – need to take a more active role to protect staffers and to promote good conduct in political offices. It should be more visible: reminding MPs of their obligations, about boundaries and appropriate workloads, and checking on the wellbeing of staff in offices. Staffers want politicians to feel the department is watching what they do. They say there should be someone to go to about these issues, without risking their jobs. They need real protections, not opportunities to complain which look good on paper but are practically perilous.
Staffers such as Katherine and Louisa are smart and hard-working. They talk about having a “hero-martyr complex”. They work long hours and go above and beyond to serve the party, the boss and the vulnerable constituents who need their help. But they feel unsupported and powerless. They have no voice to talk about the unfairness and the damage.
These stories are in the public interest. Staffers are employed by federal and state governments. Their salaries are paid by taxpayers. Their bosses are our lawmakers.
Dr Maria Maley is a researcher and senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations.
* Not their real names.