Ms VAGHELA (Western Metropolitan): I move:
I believe I have a duty to convey to the public my traumatic experience of being systematically bullied, harassed and intimidated so that the political system, in particular the tribalism of the Australian Labor Party, goes through cultural change. The ALP factional culture is toxic and corrosive. It is broken and badly in need of repair. As you will see, it is not conducive to women.
I made my way into the party through being a community activist. I must admit that I did not know the party and its culture, let alone the factional system, when I came into Parliament, and I still do not. The people that recruited me were from the Socialist Left; therefore by extension I was SL. Apparently when you join the SL you cannot leave. My experience demonstrates that certain individuals seem to think that in the name of factional tribalism all societal norms and standards are suspended and that the Labor Party factions have a carve-out in law where everything goes, including all forms of bullying, intimidation and harassment. When someone who has not grown up in the tribal factional culture is systematically targeted for leaving a faction, as I was, the experience is traumatic, especially when your cries for help are ignored by those with the power to stop it, such as the Premier and his office.
I was approached to stand for preselection by the right, who were looking for an educated woman candidate from an ethnic background. As soon as I nominated I got an angry text message, on 13 August 2018, from Ms Gabrielle Williams questioning my integrity and demanding an explanation. I thought it was strange that Ms Williams thought that she had proprietorial rights over me. I did not make too much of it at the time. Little did I know that that text message was the opening salvo in the worst period of my life, and I do not say that lightly since I have had many challenges in my life, growing up in a small town in India.
The night I was elected to Parliament in November 2018 was one of the happiest days of my life. I was proud of my achievements. I was proud to be the first person of Indian heritage to be elected to the Victorian Parliament, and the fact that I am a woman I thought was even more significant and would help inspire other women from non-English-speaking backgrounds to participate in the political process and empower them by giving them a voice.
But my happiness was short lived, as a systematic bullying campaign soon began against me. The Premier’s adviser Mr Vinayak Kolape and the Premier’s close personal friend Mr Luckee Kohli were ringleaders of a group of men who incessantly bullied, harassed and intimidated me. At events they would stand over me and invade my space, pointing, laughing, mocking and sneering at me. Their campaign extended to spreading nasty rumours, excluding me from attending events and undermining my ability to do my job. Their strategy was to bully, harass and intimidate me to such a degree that I would simply walk away from politics. It is difficult to put into words how threatening the behaviour of this group of men was. The fact that they were so open in their hostility gave me a sense that there would be a physical element to it at some stage. I therefore felt scared and anxious in going to events and functions. I had to take my husband or staff with me at all times.
This fear paralysed me. I could not eat and sleep as my health suffered from the stress of being bullied and the fear of physical attack. Before I was elected I was a strong and independent woman, but in a matter of months I became a nervous wreck. This fear was compounded when Mr Kohli sent me a threatening text message at 2 o’clock in the morning on 6 April 2019. The text message woke me up and unsettled me. The text message was a further part of their bullying and intimidation campaign.
On 29 April 2019 a man named Ravi Ragupathy, who is aligned with Mr Kohli and Mr Kolape, put up a post on social media calling me a circus monkey for leaving the SL. This harassment was the final straw. I had resisted complaining because I did not want to be seen as a whinger. However, I could not allow Mr Kohli and Mr Kolape to continue to ruin my life. On 30 April 2019 I made my first complaint to the Premier’s private office when I met with a senior member of the PPO named Mr Ben Foster.
On 6 May 2019 I texted Mr Ben Foster asking him to provide feedback on what action the PPO had taken about the bullying complaints I had made at our 30 April 2019 meeting. At my insistence we met later that day, and I reinforced my bullying complaints against Mr Kohli and Mr Kolape. On 22 May 2019 I sent Mr Foster another text message requesting feedback on what action the PPO had taken in response to my complaints, as reiterated to him at our 6 May meeting, about the bullying, harassment and intimidation I was being subjected to. Mr Foster’s response to my text was to ignore the bullying complaints that I had been making to him and respond to a very minor matter that we had discussed in our previous meeting. When I refused to accept his diversion and pressed him on what action the PPO had taken on the bullying complaints, Mr Foster did not respond to my text message.
On 6 June 2019 I sent Mr Foster another text message, again requesting an update on what actions the PPO had taken concerning my complaints about Mr Kohli and Mr Kolape leading a group of men systematically bullying, harassing and intimidating me. I did not get a response to this text message from Mr Foster. Instead of taking action to deal with my bullying complaints, the PPO and/or the Premier punished me by excluding me from an important event for leaders of the Indian community hosted by the Premier in his private office on 17 June 2019. Whilst I was excluded, the men that had led a systematic bullying complaint against me were invited. On 16 June 2019 I sent a text message to Mr Foster expressing my concern at my being excluded and my bullies being invited. I did not receive an apology or any form of reply to my text message.
I continued to make complaints because I was scared, not because I was crazy or irrational. I complained because I sensed that the bullying would lead to violence of some form at some stage. I feared that something was going to happen because their actions were openly hostile. On 29 October 2019 I sent a message to Mr Foster complaining about the behaviour of a man named Zeeshan Raza, who was associated with the SL and was part of a group of men that Mr Kohli and Mr Kolape led in their systematic bullying of me. I did not receive any response to this message, and no action was taken by the PPO.
All my fears were realised on 9 November 2019 at an event where Mr Kohli, Mr Kolape and their friends had gathered again in a group, engaging in their usual intimidating behaviour. This time Mr Raza suddenly broke away from the group and physically assaulted my husband. He grabbed my husband by the bicep and attempted to drag him outside, away from the sight of people. The man was in a state of rage. I was so terrified that I began to tremble. I have never experienced an assault or any other form of physical confrontation before, so it was a terrifying experience. The fact that I experienced this when I was an MP and after seven months of continual requests for help from the PPO made me very angry, because the PPO and the Premier could have stopped the bullying campaign when I first complained in April 2019.
On 14 November 2019 I met with Mr Grant Williams and Mr Christopher Pace from parliamentary security services, who advised me to take out an intervention order against Mr Raza. Mr Williams also informed me that he had informed Mr Foster at the PPO to make sure that the SL advisers were aware of the security risk to me at events.
My anxiety and fear had continued to rise and was at breaking point when a week after the physical assault on my husband, on 16 November 2019, I was verbally assaulted and stood over at the ALP state conference by a staff member working in the Premier’s joint electorate office with Mr Jennings. While sitting on the conference floor listening to the proceedings I noticed a woman continuously pointing at me and calling me a rat. I left the conference floor because she would not stop harassing and embarrassing me. She looked like she was repulsed by the sight of me, so I thought not having to see me would calm her down. Rather than stopping, the staffer followed me away from the conference floor and cornered me in the cafeteria, where she stood over me while pointing aggressively at my chest. She continued to call me a rat over and over again.
I could not make sense of the treatment I was receiving. I am convinced they perpetrated such a vicious and systematic campaign because I am a woman and small in stature. I am certain that they would not have done this to a man.
Before I left the SL, the Premier and I had a good relationship. We met when I was organising the Little India campaign in Dandenong. As Leader of the Opposition he was keen to be part of that campaign. However, when I became a member of his caucus, the Premier was a different man towards me. He was hostile. He would not speak to or acknowledge me. He treated me like I was invisible. Despite knowing of my bullying complaints against Mr Kohli, Mr Kolape and their friends, the Premier would brush past me at events and publicly embrace the bullies and their friends as if to reward and encourage their bullying behaviour.
On the advice of the parliamentary security team, on 21 November 2019 I took out an interim intervention order on the man that assaulted my husband. I thought as the PPO was made aware of all this it would finally bring an end to the campaign of bullying. I was wrong. On 10 December 2019 the assailant breached his intervention order by turning up to Parliament. He was secretly escorted into Parliament by an SL ministerial adviser who is aligned with Mr Kohli and Mr Kolape. The adviser had his security pass suspended for three months by the Parliament, but the PPO took no action against the adviser. I did not receive an apology or an assurance that it would not happen again. I was at my wits’ end.
On 19 December 2019 I therefore sent a text message to the chief of staff of the Premier pleading for assistance. The message read as follows:
Thank you Lissie for returning my call today. I am sick and tired of these men trying to bully, harass and intimidate me in all the ways they can. They are trying to defame me and malign my name. All these men are associated directly or indirectly with Premier’s office. Zeeshan actually wants to hurt me and my family. I am really scared for my safety. I really need your help for my and my family’s safety. I have spoken to Ben but nothing has eventuated from that. Before I speak to the Premier, as a last resort, I am seeking your help to look into this matter. Please take required action. The court magistrate was very concerned about my safety, when I sought the interim intervention order, looking at Zeeshan’s behaviour escalated in few days, from sudden unnecessary praising to physically assaulting my husband at a public event. Thank you for your time.
The chief of staff referred me to their in-house lawyer, who told me he could only deal with legal matters and his job was not staff management.
I was discouraged by Ms Marlene Kairouz from sending a letter I had written to the Premier directly. Ms Kairouz advised that the SL and the PPO would claim that I was trying to blow up the government since emails are often sent to be leaked or discovered by an FOI request. Ms Kairouz instead volunteered to speak to the PPO on my behalf. The PPO told her that they understood the circumstances but there was nothing that could be done about Mr Kohli because he was the Premier’s personal friend and that they too had problems with him.
On 26 January 2020 I sent Mr Foster a text message once again seeking support for being bullied. On 3 April 2020 I got a full intervention order against Mr Raza. Thereafter we went into lockdown, so there was no action for an extended period.
On 12 May 2021 I sent a text message to Mr Foster for an update on what action they had taken to stop Mr Kohli, Mr Kolape and their gang from bullying me. I sent this text message because we were emerging from lockdown and I was due to attend meetings and events.
On 14 May 2021 I spoke again to the PPO in-house lawyer seeking support. On the same day I also spoke to Mr Foster about my bullying complaint. I felt that Mr Foster either did not take my complaint seriously enough or he was facing internal resistance to dealing with it. I had had enough. On 16 May 2021 I emailed a six-page letter containing all the complaints that we had previously discussed to Mr Foster.
On 8 June 2021 I had a meeting with Mr Foster and Ms Jessie McCrone, who is the deputy chief of staff to the Premier, in the presence of Ms Sarah Connolly MP and Ms Natalie Hutchins. In this meeting I was not asked once what support they could provide for harassment and bullying help.
On 22 June 2021 I sent Mr Foster a text message asking what action had been taken following our 8 June meeting. I received no response to this text message. On 29 July 2021 I called Mr Foster, but he did not take my call. I then sent him a text message asking for an update. Again he did not respond to my text message. There was no contact by the PPO over August and September 2021. I also asked my colleagues Ms Connolly and Ms Hutchins whether they had heard any news, and they both replied that they had not.
On 7 October 2021 I texted Ms Hutchins to ask whether she had been provided any updates since our 8 June 2021 meeting. On 28 October 2021 I met with Ms Hutchins to seek her support in further dealing with the PPO. On 28 October 2021 I sent an email to Ms McCrone requesting an update to our 8 June 2021 meeting. On 28 October 2021 I received a reply to my email from Ms McCrone stating that Mr Kolape would be moved to other office duties.
On 5 November 2021 time options were offered to me for catch-up by the PPO, but I did not want to meet with them alone as I had lost trust in the PPO’s intentions. I tried to coordinate the diaries of Ms Hutchins, Ms Connolly and the PPO availability.
I would like to stress here that the MPs I enlisted the support of, including Ms Kairouz, Ms Connolly and Ms Hutchins, were trying to assist me in my dealings with the PPO. I wish to put on record that they acted in good faith and had no authority to take action.
Only after I made public my bullying complaint in February 2022 did I find out that Mr Kolape had been sacked by the PPO in November 2021. At no point did they inform me that they had sacked him. Further, I did not get an apology for the 2½ years that Mr Kohli and Mr Kolape were left to bully me. I still have not got any feedback on what action the Premier has taken with his personal friend and his participation in the bullying behaviour.
Ms Williams’s angry text message when I got preselected was a sign of things to come. Throughout the period I have been in Parliament Ms Williams has behaved accordingly. For 3½ years she has referred to me as a rat who cannot be trusted. This childish behaviour extended to official events where she refused to acknowledge me, including events celebrating women with me being the only other MP present. Ms Williams has not spoken a word to me in the 3½ years that we have been in Parliament together. When we are in a group situation she makes a point of trying to isolate me. Some might dismiss her behaviour as a juvenile response to separation and more fitting behaviour for a schoolyard, but we are adults and we are in a real-life workplace where it is not okay to undermine, isolate and exclude. Given the systematic bullying conducted by Mr Kolape and Mr Kohli, I believe Ms Williams was part of the campaign. Ms Williams often says words matter. My word, they do, Minister, and so does behaviour.
The Premier referring to me as ‘that person’ summed up his three years of interaction with me. By calling me ‘that person’ he stripped me of my name and my identity, therefore making me feel worthless—exactly how he made me feel in the three years of interactions I have had with him. Leaders set the culture and standards of organisations. The Premier made it very clear that I was persona non grata after I left the SL, and the rest felt they had a licence to go after me.
The fact that the Premier and his Treasurer questioned my psychological wellbeing after I made my complaint public speaks volumes. I am sick of women being characterised as mad, crazy or irrational whenever they complain. There are women who may be experiencing bullying behaviour right now who will think twice after witnessing the brutal victim blaming that the Premier and the Treasurer engaged in because I dared to complain.
All the text messages and emails referred to in my statement have been retained and will be handed to WorkSafe Victoria this week.
I have given the house a well-documented, factual account of my horrendous experience of being systematically bullied for three years. I do not consider this a matter for debate, and therefore I do not propose to sum up should members wish to speak to the motion.