#AceNewsReport – Feb.26: One of the biggest questions to arise from the shocking alleged rape of a political staffer in a Minister’s office is why the young staffer felt that making a formal complaint would end her political career:
‘The workplace system in Parliament House that helps feed unhealthy power relationships’
Her allegations are the latest in a steadily growing list of tales about the bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault of political staff, and much hand-wringing about a toxic culture in politics towards women.
Parliament House has a rather feudal system that helps feed that culture and materially sets up unhealthy power relationships that make political staff — particularly women — so vulnerable to bad treatment.
The system is based on what is known as the MOPS Act — the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act.
But there is also a body known colloquially as the Star Chamber.
And the system they underpin is constructed to leave staff at the mercy of their employers but also unaccountable to their actual employers — the taxpayers.
“The Members of Parliament (Staff) Act governs the employment of ministerial staff. But the real dilemma with the act is that staffers don’t exist in constitutional theory, so they’re really established as surrogates of, as extensions, of their ministers,” said Anne Tiernan, Professor of Politics at Griffith University.
“And now it’s a really significant political institution within our system of government, but it doesn’t have rules and arrangements to govern it effectively.
Unlike most employment contracts — between two parties, the employer and employee — a MOPS Act contract is a bit crowded with the MP, the staffer and the Department of Finance all involved.
The contract of employment is signed with the Department of Finance and through that the Commonwealth of Australia.
But the person with authority to hire and fire is the individual MP.
The second difference is the MOPS contracts allow for a staffer to be sacked at any time without a reason being given.
That means that the Department of Finance, despite being the employer who pays the staff, has virtually no power to intervene in the relationship between the staffer and the MP.
And that extends beyond the hiring and firing power to give MPs and ministers enormous power over their staff.
In fact, the only person who can interfere in the relationship is the Prime Minister, who has explicit power to over-rule the decisions of a minister to sack a staff member.
‘All very mysterious’
That brings us to what is known as the Star Chamber. Officially it is called the Government Staffing Committee.
Many people in the Coalition charge that, since the Abbott era, the Star Chamber has been increasingly “weaponised”. That is, the Star Chamber has increasingly dictated who will, or will not, work for individual ministers, rather than letting the ministers decide their own staff.
“The Government Staffing Committee is quite a mysterious body,” said Dr Maria Maley, senior lecturer in politics at the Australian National University. What you need to know about the inquiries started in the wake of Brittany Higgins’s allegationFour inquiries are currently underway, sparked by the rape allegation. Here’s what you need to know about them.Read more
“It’s internal to the government. It’s chaired — I understand — by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. But it’s very unclear what responsibilities that body has.
“They are generally in charge of administering the statement of standards for ministerial staff. So that body could impose some action if staff were found to breach the code of conduct.
“But it’s all very mysterious. We really don’t even know who’s on that committee. We don’t know when they meet, and we don’t know what they do.”
While staffers are protected by general anti-discrimination and protection provisions of the Fair Work Act, any compensation that has to be paid is paid for by the Commonwealth, not the MPs.
If, for example, Brittany Higgins made a claim against Linda Reynolds and her chief of staff for a prejudicial alteration to employment, we — the taxpayers — would have to foot the bill.
“Finance has the responsibility to manage those workplaces as best they can without actually having any power, per se,” Dr Maley said.
“So for example, they administer pay and conditions of staff, and if staff needed to complain or raise an issue, they could raise it with the Department of Finance.
“Department of Finance then could provide them with counselling, they could do an investigation into those allegations. But at the end of the day, then all they can do is present those findings and their recommendations to the parliamentarian, and it’d be up to the parliamentarian to act.
“Now that can be a problem if the parliamentarian themselves is the subject of the complaints, or if the parliamentarian simply ignores the advice.”
‘Black hole of accountability’
Perhaps the biggest benefit for politicians is that ministerial staff work outside all systems of accountability to which politicians, and public servants, must answer.
They cannot, for example, be called before a parliamentary committee to answer questions.
In the Brittany Higgins case, for example, there is no capacity to call Linda Reynolds’ chief of staff before a Senate inquiry to find out what she said and did.
“There are vested interests in keeping everything to do with staff secret,” Professor Maley said. “For example, the names of federal staffers are not public.”
Professor Tiernan said: “If a minister refuses to accept responsibility and accountability for the actions of their staff, what’s the redress? The staffer takes a bullet for the minister and is gone.
“And this is, you know, what many people became concerned about in terms of staff as a black hole of accountability, and one that it’s pretty convenient to have, actually, at public expense.”
#AceNewsDesk report ……….Published: Feb.26: 2021:
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