Emma Husar and the conversation we need to have about women in politics

The conversation we need to have about Emma Husar

Last Wednesday first term Labor MP, Emma Husar, announced she would not recontest the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay at the next election amid allegations of bullying, sexual harassment and misconduct.

On Friday a formal independent investigation into these claims was released that effectively cleared her of the most serious allegations and found there was no basis for her resignation.

Critically the accusations levelled at Husar about lewd conduct and sexual harassment, that arguably did her reputation the most damage, were not supported. The story has made for deeply dispiriting and uninspiring reading and the official report compounds it.

In a statement on Friday Husar expressed profound disappointment.

“I don’t believe any of these should have cost me my reputation, my job, or humiliated me or any of my children,” she said. “…I am gutted that the willingness of certain individuals, and certain parts of the media, to defame me on vexatious and unfounded accusations, has caused so much personal, emotional and professional damage to me, so much hurt to those close to me, and political harm to the party I have supported and worked so hard for.”

An editorial in Fairfax Media on Saturday captured the troubling reality of Emma Husar’s short political career. The independent report concluded there was merit in the allegations that Husar subjected staff to unreasonable demands but given in Canberra ‘bullying is seen as a core competence’ it is difficult to accept this as a legitimate grounds for her resignation. Or the public evisceration of her personally and professionally.

Workplace bullying is absolutely unacceptable in its every guise and ought to be rejected unequivocally. The peculiar demands on Federal politicians should not provide any immunity from treating staff respectfully: given the hours and demands placed on them the opposite should hold true. But the fact remains political staffers in offices of every party affiliation are very often subject to less than respectful treatment and many of these bosses – former and current – remain ensconced in parliament. Husar is not the first MP to have subjected her employees to unreasonable demands, which doesn’t excuse it, but provides context that cannot be overlooked.

Emma was not a career politician. She was chosen, in part, because she wasn’t. As a single mother of three children she could bring a perspective to Canberra that is rarely represented. As this Fairfax Media editorial observed:

“The ALP recruited Ms Husar to run in the marginal seat of Lindsay precisely because she was a political outsider, rather than a union hack or an apparatchik. Broadening the political gene pool was commendable. It is great that a single mother and battler was able to enter parliament. But having promoted her quickly, the ALP had an obligation to mentor extremely closely a political newbie with no management experience.”

Another Canberra side show that has virtually been running since February when news of his affair with his former staffer broke, the Train Wreck of former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, provides an alarming contrast. At present he is touring the country promoting a book that outlines – in part – his struggles with depression and the loneliness of life in Canberra.

Throughout the vast majority of Joyce’s long political career he has been supported by a wife at home raising four of his children. It is unlikely to have ever crossed his mind to ask a staffer to mind his children or walk his dog because these domestic duties were – quite literally – miles and miles away from his life in Canberra. The same goes for the vast majority of politicians who have spouses keeping the home fires burning while they toil in parliament.

As a single parent of three children Husar didn’t have that option available to her. It’s an option that, let’s be honest, money cannot buy because children and pets and homes all require 24/7 coverage.

Hiring her former nanny as an electoral assistant and enlisting her staff to help with her personal life were, admittedly, jarring revelations. It certainly isn’t standard protocol. But politics isn’t a standard vocation and if we want diversity among our elected representatives then we need to consider how single parents might manage the consuming proposition of being an MP without the support that political wives have historically provided at no cost.

Australia needs to boost the number of female politicians – at every level, in every State and Territory. Emma Husar’s experience in politics is unlikely to help.

It would be naive to say this story is entirely about gender – that it amounts to the  decimation of another female politician by sexism alone. It is bigger than that and it is clear that there were problems in the office. But to dismiss Husar’s gender entirely as a factor in this story is similarly naive. To borrow from Julia Gillard, it might not all be explained by gender but equally it is clear that gender doesn’t explain nothing.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox