Sex, booze, power: Inside Parliament House’s ‘toxic’ culture
A high pressure work environment, boozy nights, insecure employment and long hours away from home have long been factors contributing to a toxic culture inside Parliament House, say past and present insiders.
The behaviour of staffers and MPs inside the capital building in Canberra is under intense scrutiny, with leaders on both sides of politics vowing to clean up the culture.
In addition to the issues of misconduct, staff have long raised concerns Parliament House does not have a robust complaints system that would encourage alleged victims to come forward.
Each of the 227 members of parliament are essentially CEOs of their own small company, able to hire or fire at will, sometimes with as vague a reason as having "lost faith" in a staffer.
The Parliament bar may have been closed in favour of a childcare centre, but boozy events are a regular occurrence inside the building.
Staff and MPs travel to Canberra from all over the country, spending extended period away from family, and often work in stressful situations.
Even without these factors fuelling poor behaviour, the Parliament has no independent system to handle complaints if an incident does occur.
If a Parliament employee does wish to come forward, they are required to go through the Department of Finance, which essentially acts as the building's HR.
This process is little understood, and surrounded by horror stories of victims never being told about the outcome of a complaint, even though the alleged perpetrator is informed.
One female staffer told The Daily Telegraph she had "no faith" any complaint would be properly dealt with in a transparent way.
Maurice Blackburn's lawyer Mia Pantechis said Parliament's complaints process was inadequate as it was not independent. She said the focus should switch from a "risk-management approach" to "prevention" of misconduct.
Staff in the Labor Party have access to an internal complaints system, which was finalised just last month and is yet to be properly stress tested with real world examples.
The Coalition do not have a comparable process, though one is potentially in the works.
Former senior adviser Terry Barnes said when he worked for former prime minister John Howard, political staffers had prior life experience under their belt, but when Kevin Rudd took power, there was a "a cult of youth" among staffers.
Mr Barnes said this was not reversed when the Coalition regained power.
"Some old hands returned, but most were discouraged," he said. "This political youth culture has come at a cost. Too many brash yet ambitious twenty-somethings go to work in parliament far too young, far too inexperienced, far too emotionally immature."
The winds of change from the Me Too Movement led to reforms in both the US and UK political institutions.
In 2017, 1500 former US congressional staffers sent a letter demanding changes to the law to protect accusers.
The next year former president Donald Trump signed off on reforms to make it much easier for staff to come forward.
At the same time, when a Westminster junior staffer in London came forward with allegations of impropriety, then-PM Theresa May set up a parliamentary service support hotline for staff.
In Australia, lower house hours were wound back so sitting days finished at 8pm instead of 11pm, but Senate still often sits long into the night.
There's been a long history of scandals engulfing Parliament and capturing the public's attention.
In the infamous Junie Morosi affair, where Whitlam government treasurer Jim Cairns was having an affair with his private secretary in the early 1970s, media justified reporting because it affected the way his political office was run.
At the time, the government employed only a fraction of staffers compared to today's numbers.
And most were beyond their early-mid 20s, including Ms Morosi who was in her late 30s at the time.
In more recent years, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was forced to step down from his leadership position after his affair with staffer Vikki Campion was made public.
Having strongly campaigned on family values, his private behaviour was deemed in the public interest.
According to Rod Chalmer's 2011 insider account of 60 years within the Canberra Press Gallery, "booze, sex and power suffused" the Old Parliamentary building before the current Parliament House was built in 1981.
"It was a place for gossip, tips and assignations, as well as for excessive drinking," he said, adding both MPs and the general public were "broad minded on matters of sex".
"Sexual encounters and adulterous affairs have been well known and common in the Parliament; it is said that powerful men have strong sexual urges and many women like powerful men," he wrote.
Originally published as Sex, booze, power: Inside Parliament House's 'toxic' culture