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Premier's office ignored warnings over minister's "toxic" workplace

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Premier Jay Weatherill concedes his office took no action to investigate claims made against frontbencher Katrine Hildyard, alleging a “pattern of behaviour” involving treatment of staff that may “deny workers their very basic right to a safe workplace”.

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Hildyard, the minister for Disabilities and assistant minister for Sport and Recreation, has strongly rejected “any suggestion that my behaviour has been of this nature”.

“That is not who I am or what I stand for,” she told InDaily in a statement.

However, InDaily can reveal a former employee of the Australian Services Union wrote to Weatherill in December detailing concerns dating back to Hildyard’s time as the union’s state secretary, and warning “it has come to my attention that my experiences of bullying are not unique, nor a thing of the past”.

The letter did not specifically identify Hildyard, but the author has confirmed that she was referring to the member for Reynell.

“A number of other former employees have spoken with me, unsolicited, about their traumas,” she wrote to Weatherill.

“There is one current MP whose name keeps being mentioned adversely in this context. I believe that this MP has displayed a pattern of behaviour that is more than simply unprofessional. It has had, and may continue to have, the effect of denying workers their very basic right to a safe workplace. That same behaviour has left me with the mental anguish I continue to experience.”

InDaily has spoken to two former employees from Hildyard’s electoral office, and seen correspondence from a third, which appears consistent with the complainant’s claims.

Another former employee contacted by InDaily said they had no issues with Hildyard, calling her “passionate and hard-working”. They said they were “aware of other people that have had issues… but that’s none of my business”.

Several other office staff who are believed to have moved on from the office in recent months have not returned calls from InDaily.

A letter signed by Weatherill’s chief of staff, Daniel Romeo, acknowledges receipt of the complaint, saying: “I understand this matter has been raised with the ASU and they are communicating with you about the allegations you make in your letter.”

“I do not condone or tolerate bullying or harassment of any sort.

“If you wish to pursue the matter further I encourage you to contact Safework SA … to seek advice on what avenues and supports are available to you.”

It’s understood the ASU issued a confidential apology to the complainant but did not investigate or acknowledge any specific allegations against Hildyard.

ASU state secretary Joseph Scales has not responded to a series of phone calls and questions sent via SMS.

The complainant wrote that she had also detailed her concerns in a document sent to federal MP and left-wing powerbroker Mark Butler “in his capacity as ALP National Secretary and former [Progressive Left Union and Sub-Branches faction] convenor”.

Butler has not responded to a series of questions from InDaily about what action he took.

Asked whether the Premier was aware of complaints of bullying or harassing behaviour against staff by Hildyard either as an MP or during her time at the ASU, and whether he was aware of any WorkCover or Return To Work claims, Weatherill’s spokesman said: “The Premier is not aware of any claims relating to Katrine Hildyard’s time as an elected Member of Parliament.”

“The Premier’s office has received correspondence about an historical claim from eight years ago, and the matter was referred to her previous employer.

“The Premier is not aware of any WorkCover claims.”

InDaily further asked, given the allegation of a pattern of behaviour that could, if accurate, mean staff were denied a safe workplace, “what – if any – measures did the Premier or anyone in his office take to follow up and satisfy themselves that there were no adverse issues in the minister’s office re treatment of staff?”

A spokesman replied in writing that “the Premier expects all Ministers to uphold high standards of behaviour at all times, including ensuring there is a safe and respectful workplace”.

In response to this, InDaily asked whether it is incumbent upon Ministers and Premiers to follow up on issues that are brought to their attention, rather than merely assuming these standards are being upheld – particularly in light of the lessons from the Oakden scandal.

There was no response to this question.

A spokesman for Weatherill said the Premier was not made aware of the allegations by Romeo or anyone else.

InDaily asked Hildyard a series of written questions, seeking responses to claims both broad and specific, asking her to confirm that at least four members of her staff have resigned in the past four years and requesting whether workplace issues had been cited as a reason for departure. Questions were also asked about whether a former office employee had lodged a Return To Work claim citing Hildyard’s workplace behaviour.

In a statement, she said: “I am unable to discuss individual employee matters, however I take these claims very seriously.”

“I reject any suggestion that my behaviour has been of this nature – that is not who I am or what I stand for,” she said.

“I have spent my life fighting for workplaces to be free from the types of claims suggested.

“People can judge for themselves the timing of these allegations.”

InDaily was first made aware of the allegations in early February and has sought information, unsolicited, from several stakeholders in the weeks since. It first raised questions about the matter with Weatherill’s office two weeks ago.

Hildyard has previously been outspoken against workplace bullying. In 2012, an ASU probe into Walkerville Council detailed a “toxic” workplace environment, with the then-union secretary telling the City North Messenger that staff felt “unsafe” at work.

“Basically what people have been experiencing is verbal abuse, excessive criticism, feeling they don’t feel like they can’t do anything right [and] having their jobs threatened,” Hildyard told the City North Messenger. A year later, she led an ASU investigation into claims of “bullying and unusual business practices” at Port Adelaide-Enfield council.

No-one representing any other political party has approached InDaily with the claims against Hildyard.

In a letter sent by one former staff member to another, a draft of which has been seen by InDaily, the employee claims to have “witnessed and experienced abusive behaviour, bullying, and emotional manipulation from the Member of Parliament for Reynell, Katrine Hildyard”.

“The environment is toxic, and it has created an overall feeling of unhealthiness, resentment and general lack of confidence and enthusiasm… I have dreaded coming into work, and I am constantly on edge … this is not a way to live, it is not a way to work, and it is certainly not a way to treat human beings.”

Another former staff member told InDaily that representatives from the Treasury and Finance Department’s electorate services division came to meet with office staff over concerns raised about Hildyard’s behaviour.

“Her behaviour wasn’t acceptable, and the way she was treating staff wasn’t ok,” the former employee said.“The biggest concern is she doesn’t actually see there’s anything wrong with her behaviour… everyone [else] can see it but she can’t see it.”

InDaily has spoken to two former employees who say they sought treatment for anxiety and depression, and who both feel their condition can be linked to their time working for Hildyard.

It’s understood a former employee filed a Return To Work claim, citing her treatment and the adverse office environment created by Hildyard’s behaviour.

While it’s understood two staff members did not participate in the internal investigation into the claim, both have since left the office. InDaily has sighted correspondence from one of them, sent to colleagues in October, describing the workplace as “horribly toxic in every way”.

InDaily has been told several members of the office sought a group meeting with Cheyne Rich, an official from United Voice, the union that oversees the ALP’s left-faction power bloc.

Two former staff members say they could not see that any action was taken despite the concerns raised.

“I remember feeling abandoned by the party,” one told InDaily.

“We were like little plebeians… instead of trying to find solutions for us, we were left.

“We just wanted some support, some help… someone to come in and help with procedures, processes, all of that.”

Rich hung up when contacted by InDaily.

He has not responded to questions seeking confirmation of the meeting and what action he took in response to the concerns raised.

The Weatherill Government has previously been criticised for staffers and others failing to follow up on unrelated red flags.

Hildyard holds Reynell by a nominal margin of almost 10 per cent and is not expected to be seriously challenged for the seat at Saturday’s election.

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