Sunday, 18 November 2012

Cultures of Abuse

Obviously I was a bit fired up when I wrote a few days ago about George Pell's response to the announcement of the Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse.  One of the things I was trying to say, though, is that cultures of abuse are widespread and not at all confined to the church. 

One example I cited was the recent and still ongoing Peter Slipper/James Ashby affair.  For those who haven't heard, Peter Slipper resigned from the Liberal Party to take on the job of Speaker in Australia's hung parliament, and was subsequently accused of sexual harassment by a member of his staff, James Ashby.

The accusation was a hot political issue because Slipper's defection shored up Labor's thin majority.  It's quite possible that Ashby's accusations are malicious and he certainly didn't help himself by conferring with senior Liberal Party figures before going public. 

Nonetheless, the way the Labor Party turned on him and set out to discredit him was quite disturbing, because what if he is telling the truth?  What if he, a junior employee, has in fact been harassed by his boss, a powerful political figure?  The risk he has been victimised for making a genuine complaint is quite high, and if so our Labor politicians will be shown to be no better than the Catholic heirarchy which has protected its abusive priests at the expense of their vulnerable victims.

The reason this sticks in my mind is that I know very well that Australian political culture is highly tolerant of abuse, particularly verbal abuse.  I experienced this quite regularly in my 12 years in local government, and I know from employees in various local and state governments that it is widespread and if not openly then at least tacitly condoned.  It is not confined to a single political party or a particular level of government, it's everywhere.  The more senior the political figure, the more acceptable it is seen to be.

I was quite shocked the first time I saw it happen.  I hadn't been in the organisation long and had to front up to a senior councillor along with some colleagues and provide progress reports on our work.  The person we were reporting to sat impatiently through part of the presentation, then seized on something one of my colleagues said and started quizzing him about it.  The answers didn't satisfy, and the councillor tore strips off the staff member about the quality of his work.  My colleagues told me this usually happened in those meetings.  We all dreaded them, but had no choice. 

As time went on, I was often on the receiving end of such behaviour - not from all councillors and not all the time, but frequently enough to add an edge of stress to any working week.  Senior officers reassured me it was not personal and that it was just part of life in  the council.  Over time I got used to it - I still found it stressful but I learnt how to deal with it, how to stick to my guns when I needed to, screen out the verbal aggression and respond to the content of what they were saying, and leave it behind me when I left the room.  I even came to like some of the senior figures who were prone to this behaviour because I also saw their good sides.  Like others, I came to see it as normal.

But then, I am a fairly resilient person.  I've had a good education and a secure family life, by the time I joined that organisation I was an experienced professional and I generally knew more about the subject at hand than anyone else in the room.  I'd also worked for three years in child protection, where you cop a lot worse.  So I didn't really take much damage from the whole experience.

Others weren't so lucky.  Staff would often emerge in tears from such meetings.  We all knew presentations to Councillors and especially groups of them were stressful events, and tended to encourage before and check in after to see if it went OK.  For some it was worse.  One councillor went through advisers at a great rate.  Another had a long-term administrative staff member redeployed after she complained about his behaviour - she was given another job, but nothing happened to the councillor concerned despite a long record of abusive behaviour.  My predecessor left the organisation after six months because she was not prepared to put up with it.

Of course all this is at the low end of abuse compared to the issues the Royal Commission will investigate.  Yet there is a fair bit in common with more serious kinds of abuse.  The abusers were powerful people, their victims were not.  The abusers were not intrinsically bad or malicious but they were immersed in this culture and acted according to its rules.  The victims were not allowed to fight back or deliver abuse in kind, and were told by their superiors that they just had to live with it.  If people didn't like it or refused to put up with it they just had to leave. 

In other words, this was a culture of abuse.  Such cultures exist in most, if not all, of our elected governments.  Public servants are treated like this every day.  Our politicians and many senior public servants think that's OK.  I'm sorry, but I don't.

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