When the Brittany Higgins allegations first surfaced in February, as a Howard-era senior staffer I wrote that the type of alleged misconduct, and Ms Higgins’s alleged assailant, would be isolated exceptions and not the rule in Parliament House; that almost all MPs and staffers are in politics because they believe in higher principles, wanting to do good for others through good policy and governance; and are themselves good people.
Now I’m not as sure.
Revelations yesterday of not only a ‘senior’ Coalition staffer filming himself practising onanism on a female MP’s Parliament House desk, but that he was part of a ring of staffers performing similar disgusting acts and sharing them with each other, were shocking and saddening. Shocking, because that’s what they were. Saddening, because this sociopathic fool and his colleagues, and the likes of Ms Higgins’s alleged assailant, disgrace and dishonour what has been, until now, an honourable calling.
Perhaps it’s got something to do with the evolution of political staffers since the Howard years. Back them, most advisers, on both sides, had been around the block a bit before they went to work on Capital Hill. Most had years of prior life experience under their belt, and not a few had the grey hairs to prove it. But come Kevin Rudd and his cult of youth, the average age of the people in the Ministerial Wing seemed to be about 12, with earnest young people running the country looking like they should be wearing school uniforms and not ill-fitting power suits.
When the Coalition returned to government in 2013, the Rudd cult of youth was not reversed. Some old hands returned, but most were discouraged. You need energy and stamina to work in parliament in superficially glamorous but thankless jobs, and the post-Howard pace of government is not kind to experienced but greyer heads who, at any rate, can make more money with far saner hours anywhere else.
But this political youth culture has come at a cost. Too many brash yet ambitious twentysomethings go to work in parliament far too young, far too inexperienced, far too emotionally immature.
There are two types of young twentysomethings who aspire to work on the Hill. There are the idealistic but often naive ingenues, both girls and boys, who think parliament is The West Wing in real life. Then there are the cynical and sociopathic players, who see politics as a game with the prize being personal power and influence over others, and their own advancement being their highest interest: a mindset fitting both a psychopathic personality and factional politics. Both of these staffer types have been on display this last month.
The as yet unspoken tragedy of what allegedly happened to Brittany Higgins is that she should never have been working there in the first place. Had I been her minister or chief-of-staff, I would not have hired her. At her young age, just out of university, she should have been working anywhere but Parliament House, getting the broader life experience that would not only better have equipped her for life in that madhouse, but would make her a more rounded and valuable adviser.
But if promising youngsters like Brittany Higgins are hired, they must be looked after and mentored by their seniors including, if need be, protecting them from themselves. This does not appear to have happened for Ms Higgins, and certainly rarely happened in my time. On what we know so far, her then chief-of-staff, far more than her notional boss Senator Reynolds, failed her utterly as a manager and a mentor when she needed that support most.
But as it is, Ms Higgins and others like her are regularly exposed to that second group of maladjusted, emotionally-stunted psychopath and sociopath colleagues whose presence would not be tolerated in any other workplace. That those deviant individuals were recruited by MPs – female as well as male – and able to flourish in the system is something must be questioned by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s review of parliamentary culture.
And let’s not forget that revelations last week from social media groups of Labor women staffers, sharing details of their experiences of sexual harassment and mistreatment by male colleagues, make it clear that this is not just one party’s problem. Labor’s leadership can dodge accountability, it can sanctimoniously attack the government as if Labor is without sin, but it can’t hide from its own ugly underbelly.
I still believe that, as in my time, most MPs and staffers are good people and do the right thing by each other. But with each new revelation of disgraceful misconduct on the Hill, it’s that little bit harder to keep the faith.
Terry Barnes edits our daily newsletter, the Morning Double Shot. You can sign up for your Morning Double Shot of news and comment here.
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