Prime Minister Anthony Albanese allegedly breached workplace laws by slashing the staff numbers of independent MPs and driving up the workloads of their offices, in new allegations levelled at the government by high-profile former adviser Sally Rugg.
Rugg, who is suing her former boss Dr Monique Ryan for unfair dismissal in the Federal Court, has focused her claims on Albanese, arguing in court documents his direction to reduce crossbench staffing allocations led to her working long and unreasonable hours.
“In giving the prime minister’s direction, Mr Albanese was acting as an officer and/or agent of the Commonwealth,” Rugg’s updated statement of claim reads.
“Prior to and after the prime minister’s direction, the Commonwealth knew that persons employed by the Members as personal staff had high-intensity and demanding workloads, worked long and irregular hours including on weekends, and had high levels of stress.
“The prime minister’s direction constituted a major change likely to have a significant effect on employees … Neither the Commonwealth nor Mr Albanese engaged in consultation as required by [the Fair Work Act].”
The government was fiercely criticised by several independents last year for its decision to cut crossbench allocations from four to one parliamentary adviser on top of local electorate office staff, with Ryan saying in an interview with The Australian some in her office were working 70 hours per week.
In the updated claim document, Rugg’s lawyers cite quotes from Ryan following Albanese’s decision: “It’s hard to imagine how we’re going to do everything in this office with one staffer. It was a huge act of bastardry. I felt like I’d been punched in the chest. I was devastated.”
Ryan said that she was not in a position to comment given that the matter remains before the court.
Comment was also sought from the prime minister’s office, but a spokesperson for the Department of Finance, the employer of MPs’ staffers, said it would be inappropriate for the government to respond given the ongoing legal action.
Rugg, who claims she was forced to resign from Ryan’s office in January under repeated threat of termination, is taking action against both Ryan and the Commonwealth, alleging Albanese’s directives was acting on behalf of the Commonwealth, which was Rugg’s employer and is a party to the legal dispute.
She claims in the document the government breached the Fair Work Act section relating to reasonable hours due to “the fact that Dr Ryan required the Chief of Staff role to be filled by someone who was always there for Dr Ryan, and who was across everything that was happening in Dr Ryan’s office”.
“Further, the conduct of the Commonwealth was part of a systematic pattern of conduct which applied to personal staff of all Members, including Ms Rugg,” the claim reads.
The statement of claim says Albanese had seen two reports since 2021 – one from the Australian Human Rights Commission and one from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – that highlighted the workload of staffers.
Rugg’s lawyers argue these reports should have made clear the danger of reducing staffing numbers.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ report recommended an overhaul of parliamentary workplace culture, and most recently was credited for the introduction of a code of conduct for MPs and their staff.
Rugg and Ryan previously attempted to settle the case and avoid a lengthy court trial, but they have been blocked by the Commonwealth, which rejected a proposal from Rugg’s legal team to resolve the dispute for about $280,000.
The amended statement of claim represents a refocusing of Rugg’s claims away from Ryan, who is not accused of “hostile” conduct in the updated filing. Rugg had previously claimed to regularly work 70-hour weeks, but in the fresh document she claims to only have done so on two of her weeks in the office.
The new focus on Albanese’s actions may increase pressure on the Commonwealth to settle the dispute because witnesses, including Albanese, could theoretically be called to give evidence.
Rugg claims she worked an average of 58 hours a week, and regularly worked 65-hour weeks, including weekends, over the course of working for Ryan between July and December 2022.
She claims her $136,607 salary, plus the $30,205 allowance she received for working longer than usual hours, collectively only covered a combined 46.4 hours a week, and that she wasn’t compensated for the extra hours she worked.
Rugg alleges in the document that she told Ryan in a meeting in November, “The bar you have set for me is far too high and if your expectations are impossible to achieve then I have been set up to fail and will never meet them.”
The claim reads: “Dr Ryan said to Ms Rugg, ‘If you are not prepared to work as hard as I want, I will need to consider my options’. Ms Rugg asked Dr Ryan what she meant by that. Dr Ryan said, ‘Well, I would have to let you go.’”
According to the claim, Ryan told Rugg on December 21 she needed her resignation “and she and Ms Rugg could otherwise agree on ‘the story’ of the cessation of Ms Rugg’s employment”.
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