Labor MP Emma Husar is facing pressure to resign, following revelations that she tasked her electorate office staff with childminding and picking up dog poo. Her staffers have also alleged that she engaged in workplace harassment and bullying.
Husar is now on personal leave and the issue is being investigated by the Labor Party.
As we are hit by scandal after scandal involving political staff, from Barnaby Joyce and his love affair, to Michaelia Cash and her leaking adviser, it is time to take a closer look at these political staffers and their role in our democratic system.
Who are staffers and what do they do?
There are two main categories of political staff. The first is ministerial advisers, who advise ministers and parliamentary secretaries on their ministerial portfolio. The second is electorate officers, who assist MPs in carrying out their local duties of representing the people who voted for them.
Unlike the neutral and impartial public service, these staffers are political and partisan, focused on electoral success for their party. They are often young apparatchiks, sometimes with their own political ambitions.
So, is tasking electorate staff with child- and dog-minding acceptable?
These officers are hired to support MPs in administrative, communications and financial matters as they represent their constituents. Dog-walking and child-minding are not part of an MP’s professional role, and therefore should not be part of the deal.
Although Husar’s job advertisement refers to her staff supporting her personal and family obligations, this is not appropriate. Staffers are publicly funded, and the taxpayer should not have to pick up the bill for an MP’s family life. This should be funded through her personal funds, from her (very generous) salary as an MP.
How are MPs and electorate officers regulated?
But these standards do not apply to MPs who are not ministers. They also do not apply to electorate staff.
There is therefore a regulatory vacuum for federal MPs and electorate officers, without even a code of conduct regulating their behaviour. Yet MPs and electorate officers are publicly funded. This is a gap that should be fixed.
Despite discussions that have persisted for three decades, we still do not have an MPs’ code of conduct at the federal level. This means that MPs have no formalised guidance about the appropriate boundaries of behaviour, or about avoiding conflicts of interest. Likewise, electorate officers lack a code of behaviour. This is a glaring omission.
Politicians drag their heels on reforming the system because they benefit from having nonexistent regulations or lax rules. They can claim they acted appropriately or within any vague rules, or blame their staff if things go wrong.
This is why we have so many controversies involving ministers, MPs and their staff hitting the headline news – but remarkably few about remedial action or law reform.
As public trust in ministers and MPs falls, it is necessary to look to reform our political institutions. Examining parliamentary integrity systems and the regulation of political advisers would be a very good place to start.