Monday, February 06, 2023

I worked crazy hours as a political staffer. It was exhilarating, but less might be more for democracy


The first time I arrived to work at Parliament House, I remember, it was cold. The air was icy. But this can’t have been the case: I began the job in summer. Or then again, it would have been a Canberra morning, early, and perhaps the heat had not yet arrived.

How early? I’m not sure. I was nervous, so would have wanted to be there early: at the latest it would have been eight. With time, these starts became earlier. At first, I had to be across the newspapers by 7am, spotting threats and chances.

The exhausting life of a political staffer: “You did not get to switch off, not really.”

The exhausting life of a political staffer: “You did not get to switch off, not really.”CREDIT:ILLUSTRATION: JIM PAVLIDIS 

At some point I was informed, as though it was an honour, which in some ways it was, that I would be added to a morning conference call with other press secretaries for senior frontbenchers. This, I think, took place at 6.15am. As a type of bookend, there was a second call at 6.30pm, after most of the news bulletins had taken place, to assess the day and prepare for the next. Twelve hours was, in effect, the minimum work day.

We were in opposition then. In government, the morning call moved briefly to 5.15am, then back to 6.15am. When I moved to the Prime Minister’s Office I discovered the existence of another call, still earlier. If there was an interview with the ABC’s AM, or Neil Mitchell, or David Koch, you might start before that call, travelling to meet your boss at The Lodge or Kirribilli House. There were those who started before me: every day at 4am, one rostered person picked up the earliest papers at a local newsagent. Sometimes they would help unpack the trucks that brought the papers.

At first, I was a little shocked at how much was being asked. In the weeks that parliament was not sitting I would do my best to take things slower. As I worked longer hours, and worked harder too, with more responsibility, my attitude changed. Conceivably, with longer hours, I may have become more protective of my own time. The opposite occurred. The more senior I became the more I came to believe that being a staffer was a way of life; working for the prime minister especially.

You did not get to switch off, not really. The price of entry was the willingness to put the job first, by a very long way; those who refused to pay that price were not doing their part.

“Doing their part”, that is, in the collective endeavour of governing. It was a cause and a calling. Hard work was its nature. This attitude was partly learned: passed on by those I respected. But it also seemed unavoidable, tied up with the nature of the work. Conflict dominated. There was conflict between ministers, transmitted to their staff; conflict between staff; conflict with journalists; conflict with everyone who opposed your policies. There were always threats; you were always protecting something; everything was secret; delay was dangerous.

All this was energising, in various ways. Ultimately it was exhausting.

I have wondered if my belief, then, that long hours were essential was an attempt to justify to myself the price that politics had already exacted. I missed important events, damaged relationships – but all this could be redeemed, or at least explained, if I had not really had a choice, or if there had been some higher purpose. Which of course is the reason I gave too – perhaps not entirely consciously – for the compromises I made with my own beliefs and moral instincts. These exacted less cost at the time, but far more later.

Sally Rugg and Monique Ryan are in a legal stoush over work hours.

Sally Rugg and Monique Ryan are in a legal stoush over work hours.CREDIT:NICK MOIR/ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

This past week I have felt conflicted, observing debate over the court case – now in mediation – in which Sally Rugg, chief of staff to independent MP Monique Ryan, sued Ryan and the Commonwealth over her working conditions, reportedly including 70-hour working weeks. The conflict I feel isn’t over the case, the specifics of which none of us know. It is an internal conflict, over my own memories and my own attitudes towards them.

So far, I have highlighted what was hard. But it is also true that my time in politics was satisfyingly difficult and often exhilarating; I will always be grateful for it, and have recommended such jobs to others. Once you have lived through something it can be difficult to untangle the strands. Which parts could have been cleanly cut off, leaving the rest intact

The price of entry was the willingness to put the job first, by a very long way; those who refused to pay that price were not doing their part.

The other question I have struggled with is whether it is possible for that culture of adrenaline and overwork to change that much. Politicians will always be convinced this is the most important thing they will do; and people willing to submit themselves to their whims will always, for the most part, be young, with all the hunger and lack of perspective that brings. Many of them, politicians and staffers both, will believe, because it is true, that there is far more to do than can be done in the time they have.

More and more, though, I think these questions have the wrong focus. One’s own experience can sometimes be a poor guide, in part because it is narrow. There are obviously deep problems in the working culture that has existed for so long at Parliament House, one criticised in the Human Rights Commission’s Set the Standard report. That culture has had far worse consequences than any I experienced, sexual harassment and assault among them.

And I cannot, on reflection, help but feel – as the report suggests – that all the troubling elements of that culture are bound up with each other. Long hours, hostility, moral compromise, as well as sexism, abuse and silence: all triumph in a place that glorifies conflict and places victory above all else.

Changing that culture will be extraordinarily difficult; in part because it is so easy to lose perspective in that strange environment. But difficulties can be overcome when change is genuinely necessary. We are surely long past the point at which we should understand that the hours and atmosphere not only inflict harm – which should be enough reason for change – but deprive politics of too many good people with important knowledge of the world: too many older people, people with varied experiences, people with kids, people who simply refuse to work in an insane workplace.

Those who do the jobs suffer; those who don’t do the jobs miss out. And our politics – which affects everyone – suffers too.

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