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Emma Husar – Yet another institutional failure

By John Tons

By now most Australians will have moved on from the Emma Husar episode. For those who managed to miss it – here is a brief synopsis: Emma Husar is a first-term politician. There were indications that her staff were not happy with her management style, in addition some of her staff made some serious allegations concerning her conduct. The ALP conducted an investigation, and although dismissed the serious allegations did note that her management style could have been better. Emma agreed not to nominate for the seat in the forthcoming election, and all went quiet again. Success had been achieved; another ‘mouthy’ young woman had been removed from parliament.

I do not know Emma and know next to nothing about what she is supposed to have done or not done. But I do know a little about institutional gender powerplays. The key thing to note is that we are blind to those everyday practices of a well-intentioned society that creates a form of oppression whose causes are embedded in the unquestioned norms, habits and symbols that are blindly followed. It makes assumptions about the structure of occupational distinctions, the definition of tasks within them and the relations among people occupying differing positions within an enterprise. One of the more common examples that one could not help but hear about concerns the walking of Emma’s dog. Apparently, that was delegated to one of her staff members – people fulminated that this was an abuse of tax payers’ money – she should not use her staff in that way.

I will assume for the moment that this was a true account of what happened. Emma Husar employed staff to enable her to carry out her job as a parliamentarian and some of these staff were tasked with various domestic chores. I understand perfectly well why this created such a furore. We know why it created such a furore – domestic duties are seen as menial tasks – not tasks for paid professional staff. For me it highlights how deeply embedded are our prejudices about occupational differentiation. It is that same prejudice that leads us to accept a situation where a CEO is paid 200 times the annual salary of the janitor who cleans his toilet. (It is almost always ‘his’ toilet). We have lost sight of the fact that to get anything done requires a team of people – for anyone of those people to relate themselves as more important is a nonsense.

Yet we persist in supporting an organisational structure that gives credence to the belief that some jobs are more important than others, that defines people by what they do rather than the quality of their character. Parliament and Australians generally lost a valuable opportunity when they closed the book on Emma Husar – it had been an opportunity to question our assumptions about the structure of occupational distinctions.

Note: Some of this may sound familiar to some people; the commentary was influenced by Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.


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  1. Jagger

    The media haven’t be able to “Kill Bill” yet, but they’ve certainly hammered Emma.

  2. LInda

    How many other MP’s have asked their staff to ‘walk the dog’, ‘Pick up the kids from school’, ‘Pick up the dry cleaning’, ‘Buy flowers for the wife’, “run errands of any kind’, Book a restaurant for dinner’……???

  3. Presser#1

    Some male employees still interpret instructions from a female boss as ‘bullying’. However in a similar situation women employees with a male or female boss take it all for granted. I’ve worked in numerous jobs in which I was asked ( for example) to pick up the drycleaning, give a message to the wife etc. I note that the major complainant here was a male. Perhaps he was in the wrong job?

  4. Nw England Cocky

    Emma Husar, another competent woman excluded from the ranks of the misogynistic Parliament for having personality, an opinion and a desire to work for the benefit of her constituents. The ALP slipped up badly when they failed to use, Maxine McKew, the former female MP for Bennelong, as the PR face of the ALP government in 2007 following her stunning defeat of John Howard. They have not learned.

    Thank you Emma for winning your place in Parliament on merit. The ALP camp followers having aspirations without talent or ability were envious.

    @Jagger: When there is muppet placed at the front of the misgovernment to dance to the tune of a racist fascist dictatorship, then the MSM appear to have been directed to throw mud at “anything with talent” because their puppet is seen to be “the King without clothes”. This tactic was first employed by Murdoch in 1974 after the Whitlam government called him before the Bar of the Senate to explain why his mastheads were biased against that reforming ALP government.

  5. Athena

    Political staffers earn high salaries and work long hours. Is it acceptable to use public funding to pay an exorbitant rate for domestic tasks? Is it acceptable that long working hours are required because someone’s work day has been filled with tasks that are not associated with their employment? Michaelia Cash has a high staff turnover and they work long hours. If the MSM revealed that her staff were required to perform domestic tasks, would ALP supporters complain in much the same manner as the right did about Husar? I’m sure they would.

  6. king1394

    Emma lacked a wife. Most male MPs have a spouse who would of course be walking the dog or watching the children. Emma Husar is a sole parent with three children (and a dog). Her support needs were slightly different. Loyal staff members would have seen their role as enabling the MP to do her job. Unfortunately some of the staff of this MP were arrogant enough to consider themselves above providing support in whatever way was needed. I’m surprised that they stooped to doing photocopying and filing.

  7. john tons

    Judging by some of the comments I clearly have failed to articulate my reasons for writing this piece. Athena’s questions go to the nub of the issue:

    Is it acceptable to use public funding to pay an exorbitant rate for domestic tasks? Is it acceptable that long working hours are required because someone’s work day has been filled with tasks that are not associated with their employment?

    To answer those questions properly would assume that there exists a consensus about what the proper role of a politician is. I know of some politicians who regularly work 90 hour weeks – they are always there for their constituents. To enable them to do that they need to be surrounded by a team that can pick up those many other tasks that fill one’s day. Married politicians find that their spouse picks up the domestic chores but what do we do about single parents?

    This is not a partisan political debate it goes to the core about the importance of a work-life balance – the Husar affair has simply highlighted that parliament is, for many people, a toxic work environment hence the affair is an indication of an institutional failure. Questions like Athena’s will not admit to an answer because we have no established agreement about what the role of a politician ad what support should be available to enable them to discharge their duties effectively.

  8. Kaye Lee

    To be a political staffer, one would have to be both resilient and flexible. Not all would be suited to it.

    The argument could be made that Ms Husar should have paid for a nanny/housekeeper herself. But the tasks I have heard complained about are relatively paltry.

    There is a messy overlap in some of the complaints where Emma found herself in the middle of a fight between a mother and a daughter – always a bad place to be and only going to end in bad blood.

    I have worked in high pressure environments on occasion where there are no set working hours, just tasks to complete by deadlines. Everyone pitches in to keep the ball rolling and if that means picking up a workmates’ kids so they can keep working, then that’s what teamwork is all about.

    The point about the support we offer politicians who are single parents is worth pursuing….but that should be considered in the wider community too. It’s a tough gig made infinitely harder if your job requires travel and no set hours.

    It should also not have come to this. There should have been mediation, counselling and mentoring at the first sign of problems. Emma should not have been left to face this alone.

  9. Nigel Drake

    Politics is never a matter of what should be done, Kaye.

  10. guest

    From what I have read, the complainants seemed to be in a hurry to get satisfaction. I am not sure how much they spoke with Emma herself. There were 20 of them apparently. Why did no one notice there was discontent? Or, was there no process to deal with the matter at the office level? Shorten says he did not know about the problems, but Albanese did. So the complainants became impatient. There was a Department which has a website which says they deal with such complaints but the complainants tell us they went to them but were told it was not their business. So the complainants became more impatient and this brought about the Whelan investigation, but it was too slow, so the complainants went to the media before the Whelan report was made.

    I do not know what all the complaints were about, but I do know that the most salacious bits were rejected – one of which had been denied by a person involved as ever having happened.

    So I wondered why there are so many people aggrieved and dissatisfied and impatient to get justice, 20 of them. There are people of the tuff-skinned kind who would say to them “Toughen up!” Then there are others who would say “Be part of the team!”

    Yes there are some workaholics who will work 20 hours a day, but one must ask why they have to make themselves look like martyrs to the cause, where there are others who will not work a minute longer than the have to.

    So I wonder about Jon Tons’ claim about “exorbitant rates for domestic tasks” and “long hours worked …filled with tasks that are not associated with their employment”. How might they be defined in terms of a union work agreement? Why cannot adult people come to an agreement among themselves? Why do they need to go to someone else and then get so impatient their requests are not being met immediately.

    I have to say – and it is only an opinion – that while Emma is accused of bullying, it is possible that Emma is being bullied to some degree; that if some of the accusations are not easily validated, then it is possible that some of the others are not easily validated either.

    Having 20 people running from place to place to get some satisfaction against someone is either a work-place disaster in train – or a conspiracy.

  11. Athena

    Yes, how does one disgruntled employee manage to convince 19 others to stand with him, if the complaints are trivial? I’ve worked with some ferals and it has been difficult for colleagues to get back up from other staff. Labor didn’t circle the wagons to protect Husar from the right wing attacks. Why?

  12. corvus boreus

    Important facts (+ opinion and suggestion).

    First and foremost, the current member for Lindsay, Emma Husar, has stated that she will not be running for re-election
    This means the ALP have to find and field a new candidate for that seat, which could be described as ‘swinging’.
    Labor’s must pull forth a person with the broad appeal to retain the seat and the political competence to hold it.
    That should be their situational priority on the matter

    In terms of the circumstances of allegations, investigations and reporting that led to Ms Husar’s resignation?
    I gather that the 3 main reported issues were regarding sexual misconduct, bullying behavior and inappropriate resource expenditure/allocation.

    The sexual allegations were dismissed.
    The only cause for broader examination there is regarding media conduct, as in why Buzzfeed chose to muddy the waters and stir up shit by airing the ‘salacious details’ of unsubstantiated allegations, then why other media outlets chose to amplify such gossip by broadcasting verbatim quotation.
    The complaints of behavioral bullying seems to still be under examination
    To me those matters seem to be something best dealt with by those most-qualified regarding legalities around mediation/arbitration in workplace relationships, both in terms of regulatory bodies and internal processes.

    The alleged misappropriations in her conduct, which have not been dismissed, are more widely problematic to the Labor cause, and, I suspect, form a large part of why Ms Husar, despite the obvious merits inherent in the evident fact of her successful candidacy, was nudged towards quitting.
    Ms Husar had, in 2010, publicly stated; “politicians, I want to be one, you can lie, steal, cheat and use other people’s money to go on holidays – the best job in the world”.
    For someone facing mis-expenditure allegations, (albeit small grift like tickets to Bruno Mars) that is an ‘unfortunate’ electronic fingerprint to have, especially when one of the your party’s central policy platforms for the upcoming election is a crackdown on political corruption through the formation of a federal integrity commission.

  13. New England Cocky

    C’mon CB, take a look at the Parliamentary Expenses claimed by Barnyard Joke, the sometime representative of the National$ preferring Adulterers in New England.

    How can a reported claim of about $1.1 MILLION for a six month accounting period be valid and above board??? It represents about $6,000 PER DAY EXPENSES. I doubt that any other politicians could be THAT greedy!!!

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