9 March 2023

Federal Court case puts parliamentary workplace culture back at top of the news

| Chris Johnson
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Parliament House. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Federal parliament’s workplace culture is once again in the spotlight, with the Federal Court having dismissed an application by political adviser Sally Rugg to continue working for independent MP Monique Ryan while their employment dispute continues.

Justice Debra Mortimer threw out Ms Rugg’s interlocutory application on Tuesday, sending the case to a full trial later this year.

In her judgement, Justice Mortimer said no real working relationship remained between Ms Rugg and the Member for Kooyong and one was unlikely to be restored.

“I am far from persuaded Ms Rugg really wants to go back to work supporting and assisting Dr Ryan,” the judge said.

“I do not consider the situation is likely to be tolerable, let alone productive and workable, for either of them.”

Ms Rugg was seeking an intervention to stop the termination of her $160,000-a-year parliamentary job.

The pair’s lawyers had held unsuccessful meditations over a month, and the matter had been before the Federal Court four times in five weeks.

Ms Rugg is seeking financial compensation from Dr Ryan and the Commonwealth over alleged breaches of the Fair Work Act.

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In her ruling about Ms Rugg retaining her job, Justice Mortimer stated that it had no bearing on whether the wider unfair dismissal case would be successful.

“Ms Rugg’s arguments at trial about contraventions of the FWA may well succeed,” she said.

A Federal Court trial, most likely in the second half of this year, will be set for about 15 days.

Ms Rugg’s lawyer, Josh Bornstein of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, said that while Ms Rugg was disappointed she couldn’t keep her job, the case was at an early stage.

“The focus will now turn to preparing the case for trial, which will consider whether 70-hour working weeks, almost twice the ordinary working week of 38 hours, is unlawful under the FWA,” he said.

“It will also determine Ms Rugg’s allegations of unlawful adverse action. In 2021, Kate Jenkins of the Australian Human Rights Commission handed down Set the Standard Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces (2021).

“The report was welcomed by the parliament and a process of reform to make parliament a safer workplace has unfolded.

“One of the risk factors compromising workplace safety and highlighted in that report was the long working hours of parliamentary staffers.

“The issues to be considered at trial could have far-reaching ramifications for all Australians who work in industries where long hours are expected and normalised.”

Dr Ryan has committed to defending each action against her, saying she was not the over-demanding boss Ms Rugg has portrayed her as.

“I never once gave Ms Rugg a direction that she should work that many hours or that many days per week,” Dr Ryan’s affidavit states.

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Ms Rugg took stress leave in December and then resigned, but later claimed to have been forced into quitting.

Ms Rugg claimed Dr Ryan once declared she wanted to be prime minister and that her staff must work hard to get her there even though, as an independent MP without a party, it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, under the Westminster system for Dr Ryan to become prime minister.

Dr Ryan has subsequently stated she was only joking when she made that comment.

But the whole issue is again challenging the workplace culture of Parliament House.

In October, a sidebar to the Jenkins Set the Standard report was released by the government – the Review of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (Cth).

The review published comments from staff about the function and dysfunction of parliamentarians’ offices.

Those comments did not put MPs and senators in a good light.

The review pointed out that few MPs and senators had experience in people management before entering parliament, yet they are given total control over their staff upon election.

It talks of MPs flouting laws protecting staff and caring little about due process as they know the system will protect the parliamentarians.

Contributors to the review also slammed the human resource departments within the public system.

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