Inside Story

The political precariat

More than twenty years before Emma Husar’s alleged misbehaviour, our correspondent had his own experience of the precarious life of a political staffer

James Panichi 14 August 2018 981 words

Unsafe workplace? Stefan Postles/AAP Image

Only later did I realise that my effectiveness as an electorate officer had reached its apex at the moment I found myself pointing a finger at my boss’s face while yelling that she had almost made me kill a wombat. It was an extraordinary outburst by a mere staffer, and the following day I expected her to tell me to get the hell out of her office. Instead, she was back to her normal self: in a foul mood about some constituent who claimed we hadn’t returned his call. (We had no record of having received it.)

And that was it — no mention of my outburst. Or the wombat. But by then I had decided to leave anyway. For two and a half months I had put up with the MP’s petty, bullying antics and it was time to make myself scarce.

Leaving meant turning my back not just on her, though; it would also probably end any hope I had of a career in politics. And that’s what has been missing from the Emma Husar controversy: a recognition of the vulnerability of people who work for politicians, especially if they plan a career in politics, and just how complicit the parties are in their predicament. That’s why the findings of a party-commissioned report won’t shed much light on incidents like this.

Political organisations of all colours have everything to gain by downplaying complaints made by electorate officers. And how could it be otherwise? What party would want to reveal that it had vetted and approved a candidate for preselection only to find that, once elected to office, he or she was incapable of managing a small staff without resorting to bullying and intimidation? Who is going to take responsibility for that mistake?

In retrospect, the writing had been on my particular wall all along. I discovered that the press officer I had replaced hadn’t actually resigned — he simply hadn’t turned up for work one day. He had locked himself in his flat in a nearby town and refused to come out. According to office folklore, the MP went to the flat and spent half an hour buzzing the doorbell, shouting, “I know you’re in there!” Shouting at people was the only constant in her erratic management style.

All the horror stories about my former employer were linked by one theme: if we wanted a career in politics, we needed to shut up and do what she said. The not-so-subtle threat was that all it would take was one bad word about us in the party room and no other MP would touch us. And, of course, because we were in the unusual situation of being on the public payroll without being public servants, there was no HR hotline we could call, no way to bring in a mediator.

The only organisation that could rein in an MP between elections was his or her party — and we knew whose side the senior figures were on. The party knew about the high turnover of staffers in my boss’s office, but she — a good local member in a marginal seat — was too valuable an asset for them to touch. Staffers were expendable. The party didn’t even think it was worthwhile to offer the MP some basic training or send in a mediator when things got very bad.

I was new in town and was looking for somewhere to stay, so my fellow staffer suggested I move in with him — he was renting a big house and was in urgent need of a housemate. “No way!” she bellowed when she heard about it. “I’m not having you lot spending your time talking about me behind my back!” This was my second day at work.

Then I found out that she didn’t want me to waste money on accommodation when parliament was sitting because she needed to be able to tell the electorate that she was spending less money than her predecessor. I would work in Canberra late into Thursday night then make my own way home to her electorate and be at my desk the next day. That’s how I came to swerve off the road in the early hours of Friday morning, miles away from anything, to avoid a wombat. I was lucky to survive.

Back then I was in my early twenties, with no mortgage to pay and no kids to feed. When I left the office, that was it; my fellow electorate officer did the same and started up a successful professional training company (we’re still in touch, although our conversations mainly involve us reliving the trauma of those months). But what about those who couldn’t afford to resign? Or those who actually wanted to make a career out of it?

The veracity of the claims against Husar is for others to decide, but one thing I know for sure: political staffers are unusually vulnerable and completely on their own. The assumption that politicians have the right to hire and fire until they get the staff they want will never be challenged. And if parliament doesn’t want to take responsibility for the fate of workers it pays for, well, the parties aren’t about to get involved either. When my MP was churning through employees, everyone in the party knew about it but no one acted.

When a fellow staffer left the office just weeks ahead of me, he called me on my mobile as he drove away. “Free at last; free at last… Thank God.” It was exactly what the previous staff member had done while driving away for the last time, and it had already become an office meme.

“Who was that? Who were you talking to?” My boss had appeared out of nowhere.

“Nobody,” I answered. “I was talking to nobody.” ●