Polley admits probe, denies specific claims

UPDATE

TASMANIAN Labor Senator Helen Polley has released a statement confirming a Comcare investigation took place but rejecting specific allegations of bullying conduct made by former staff.

``I absolutely reject claims that have been made against me,'' Senator Polley said.

``In March this year Comcare commenced a Compliance Inspection Intervention in response to information provided to them by the Department of Finance.

``The Comcare process was finalised in March 2013.

``The recommendations outlined in Comcare's final report are being implemented to ensure that all work, health and safety information, policies, procedures and systems are of the highest standard.

``I am completely committed to fostering a healthy and productive workplace environment for my staff.''

A number of other former staff members have come forward today to support claims published in The Examiner today, that said Senator Polley bullied staff one-by-one until they resigned. They said they raised the issue with senior members of the national branch of the Australian Labor Party, other Tasmanian Labor politicians and two separate unions.

Tasmanian Labor Party state secretary John Dowling said he was not aware of any allegations of bullying at the office of any Tasmanian Senator and none had been raised with him in his six years in the office.


STAFF BULLYING ALLEGATIONS:
- One staff member would be picked out and given an unreasonable, changing and unmanageable workload.
- Staff would be required to write speeches and media releases with no input from the Senator, and the work criticised for being wrong.
- Staff would be asked to complete tasks that were never used.
- Senator Polley did not attend a meeting at the ALP offices in Canberra set up by staff to address these issues.
- Staff were told they could have a reference to leave because the Senator "did not like intelligent staff''.
- Senator Polley left a junior staff member at Canberra airport at 1.30am, telling the staffer to organise her own taxi before leaving in her Commonwealth car.
The Comcare report found Senator Polley's office had an unhealthy workplace culture but did not comment on each specific allegation.

Premier Lara Giddings said today that it was not appropriate for her to comment on the issue, as it related to federal parliament.

``In any environment, any form of bullying is not appropriate, but if this has been investigated and dealt with that is the appropriate process and really, there's nothing to be said,'' Ms Giddings said.

National ALP secretary George Wright has been contacted for response.

EARLIER

A TASMANIAN senator has been investigated for bullying after three staff successfully filed workplace harassment claims against her.


WHAT THE COMCARE INVESTIGATION FOUND:
- Gaps and deficiencies in the implementation of the Department of Finance and Deregulation's anti-bullying and workplace standards policies.
- An unhealthy workplace culture and environment that had "an adverse impact on the morale, health and well-being" of certain staff.
- Ongoing allegations and counter-allegations of bullying and harassment.
- Lack of clearly defined roles for staff.
- Lack of adequate consultation and issue resolution in the office.

Former staff allege Labor Senator Helen Polley belittled and abused staff, and that her behaviour had caused the four- person office to turn over about 36 staff since her election in 2004.

Three staff members have had claims for compensation for damages suffered through workplace bullying and harassment approved in the past 12 months.

Two of those people, who are still technically on the payroll, have been unable to return to work since February.

The allegations led to an inquiry by Commonwealth health and safety body Comcare this year.

A report on the inquiry was released under freedom-of- information laws and obtained by The Examiner.

Inspector Anthony Jay states in the report that he "identified an unhealthy workplace culture and environment at the workplace for a significant period up to and including the time of the incidents, and this had an adverse impact on the morale, health and well-being (of affected staff)".

A spokesman for Comcare confirmed the senator's office was investigated for bullying and harassment claims but did not say which specific allegations were proven.

Senator Polley declined to comment on specific allegations yesterday, saying: "I have ongoing engagement with Comcare and it's not appropriate to make any other comment at this time."

Former staff member Dennis Holzberger left the senator's office after two years in October and filed a Comcare claim in November.

In his complaint, he said stress had made him unable to sleep and he dreaded going to work.

He has been diagnosed with depression and said he is not sure, 12 months on, whether he would be fit to return to the workforce.

"It's not something I would have believed could have happened," Mr Holzberger said.

"You think: `I'm an adult, I'm tougher than this.' You don't really believe the impact that it's had."

An experienced public servant who left a position managing allied health at the Launceston General Hospital to work for Senator Polley, Mr Holzberger said he initially brushed off her behaviour.

He said she would give a number of staff members the same work to do, and require staff to perform time-consuming tasks like compile dossiers that she did not use.

He said she very rarely provided any input into speeches and media releases and provided no information about her taxpayer- funded trip to Europe in 2011, leaving him to make up the report.

"It was a complete fabrication," Mr Holzberger said of the report.

In a written response to Mr Holzberger's Comcare claim, also obtained by The Examiner, Senator Polley said she felt threatened and intimidated by Mr Holzberger and, in turn, began to dread attending her own office.

She said she repeatedly raised concerns about his performance with him, a claim Mr Holzberger denies.

Other documentation provided to The Examiner said that in October 2011, when Qantas grounded all flights and Tasmanian politicians had to take an Australian Defence Force plane, Senator Polley left a junior staff member at Canberra Airport at 1.30am. It says she told the staffer to organise her own taxi before leaving in her Commonwealth car.

The document says former Braddon Labor MHR Sid Sidebottom witnessed the incident and gave Senator Polley's staffer a lift in his own Commonwealth car.

Another former staff member, who did not wish to be named, said Senator Polley "hurled abuse at staff".

"She would walk into a room, say to a staff member `you smell', and throw open a window," they said.

"It sounds like a lot of little things, but at the end of the day that's what's happening every day.

"The environment was just toxic."

Mr Holzberger said a number of key Labor figures had been told of her behaviour.

"Quite certainly the Labor Party knew, other politicians knew, the union knew, the Department of Finance and Deregulation knew," he said.

"You can't not know what's going on if you have that rate of turnover."

A letter was even sent to the office of former prime minister Julia Gillard, stating an ex- employee's concern about the "unacceptable and unhealthy" way staff were treated.

"For a party who advocates for workers' rights and yet allows this sort of thing to happen within its own rights is quite disturbing," the letter says.

Mr Holzberger said staff raised Senator Polley's behaviour with her a number of times, but it never resulted in lasting changes.

Staff set up a meeting with party strategist Peter Bentley at the ALP National Office in Canberra on March 25, 2011, to address ongoing issues, but Senator Polley did not attend.

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