Monday, May 23, 2011

Big men behaving badly

From Phil Dorling in Saturday's Canberra Times.

He was writing about Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Then...

Are such cases common in Australia? Not very. But it's also true that quite a few politicians conduct their private lives in ways that would not stand too much public scrutiny. This was certainly a conclusion I reached after seven years service as a federal Labor staffer between 1996 and 2003.

I hasten to add that this is in no way a reflection on my two employers in this period, NSW Labor MPs Laurie Brereton and Daryl Melham, who to my knowledge conduct themselves with the highest probity in public and private. However there were other Labor MPs and staff who took the view that public office and official privilege was licence to indulge themselves. Parliament House is rife with gossip and rumour, often vicious and politically motivated. Consequently considerable caution is required in relation to reports and claims about MPs and their staff.

However on the basis of the my own observations and conversations with colleagues, I concluded that cases of sexual harassment of female staffers by male MPs and staff were disturbingly frequent. Such cases often occurred within the claustrophobic confines of small political offices, with long working hours and heavy drinking. In most cases the victims either suffered in silence, quietly departed to work elsewhere or else were sacked on some spurious grounds.

To my knowledge at least four MPs were obliged to quietly settle unfair dismissal cases, with accompanying non-disclosure agreements, to avoid a scandal. In one case the victim suffered a breakdown and did not return to the workforce for a number of years. One senior Labor adviser with influence over staff appointments was well known for propositioning junior female staff in his office, and referred to the sofa in his office as ''the casting couch''.

A prominent Labor backbencher was in the habit of referring to female Labor and parliamentary staff as ''the smorgasbord.'' Another MP was in the habit of emailing choice examples of internet pornography to friends using his parliamentary email (he once accidently selected the wrong address list.)In correspondence I recently received, a former federal Labor MP privately described how one of his married colleagues would ''boast about having five women in one parliamentary week''.

The former MP described his friend as ''the Alvin Purple of Parliament House in his time'' who would ''root a lamppost given half a chance''. Recalling the MPs conduct while travelling on parliamentary business, I would say the description was not unfair.

There are many, including prominent members of our federal parliamentary press gallery, who argue that the private conduct of politicians should remain private unless it directly impacts upon their public duties and responsibilities. This is broadly true, though how people conduct themselves in private may indeed tell much about their character which is indeed relevant to their stewardship of public office.

In Australian political life there is a marked reluctance to probe too deeply into the private conduct of public figures. For some years there was a ''gentlemans' agreement'' between Labor and the Coalition to quietly manage these matters since neither side wanted their dirty secrets revealed. But there should be no protection for sexual harassment or worse conduct. It is in the absence of scrutiny that abuse, of all sorts, tends to flourish.