Labor staffer Sanja Spasojevic, who worked for Health Minister Cook, shocked over ‘brutal’ sacking

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    It seems the ALP only has an issue with workplace bullying if it's not done by them

    A longtime Labor staffer claims she was “brutally” sacked by Deputy Premier Roger Cook, whom she regarded as a close and stalwart friend.Sanja Spasojevic said Mr Cook hadn’t spoken to her since her world caved in last July.Ms Spasojevic, who worked in his Kwinana electorate office for nine years, was the Health Minister’s senior staffer there and his “right-hand” in dealing with constituency issues. Outside of work, he was a frequent guest at her home where he enjoyed her family’s warm hospitality.But the Deputy Premier’s familiarity with Ms Spasojevic didn’t extend to picking up the phone and returning her frantic calls and messages after she was sacked without any warning.Eight months on, she still hasn’t heard from him.Strangely, just five hours before she got the fateful phone call from a human resources manager on July 1, she’d received a text message from Mr Cook welcoming her back in the office after a period in which she’d been working from home due to COVID-19.Government’s heavyweights all smiles at ALP bash at Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club in Peppermint GroveFederal Government to announce terms for Parliament House workplace culture review McGowan calls for Rio Tinto investigation after bullying, sexism claims by whistleblower Elle CooperState election 2021: Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese snubbed by Premier Mark McGowan on campaign trailIt mentioned going over campaign plans later in the day.There was no inkling of anything amiss or what was about to happen.Her shock from the phone call triggered a panic attack. Driving home, she had to pull on to the hard shoulder of the Kwinana Freeway and phone husband Neb who, with her brother, rushed to her aid.It was just the beginning of her nightmare.

    The phone call also brought the curtain down on a 24-year career with her beloved Labor Party, in which she’d worked for Kim Beazley, Mark McGowan and other MPs in their electorate offices before joining Mr Cook’s team.

    Her references from them were glowing.

    Her devotion to the party was marred in more recent times by bullying, harassment and inappropriate comments, according to Ms Spasojevic, who suffers from a disability and a chronic health condition.

    She even went to court to obtain a misconduct restraining order against another Labor staffer, alleging he threatened to “destroy her” and intimidated her outside her home.

    After the July 1 phone call, she was being pressured to sign a deed of settlement that would allow her to “resign” with a severance payment and a reference but would gag her from ever disclosing any details.

    Sanja Spasojevic, centre, and Roger Cook at an event. Spasojevic, centre, and Roger Cook at an event.

    She refused to sign and her employment was officially terminated on October 15 last year.

    Scores of Labor people, including MPs, have confided their shock and dismay at her dismissal. But on the eve of a State election they don’t want to rock the boat.

    The West Australian is aware that one Labor candidate was so disgusted over her treatment he considered pulling out.

    “What has happened to you is a stark reminder to me of the worst parts of the Labor Party and why I left it for a period,” he texted her.

    “But you Sanja, you are a reminder of what is good about the Labor Party, you represent what everyone in the party should be and it hardens my resolve to fight for what’s right. You are in the right and do not deserve to be treated as you have.”


    You Sanja, you are a reminder of what is good about the Labor Party, you represent what everyone in the party should be and it hardens my resolve to fight for what’s right. You are in the right and do not deserve to be treated as you have.

    Ms Spasojevic, 42, is the second of Mr Cook’s staff to be fired in controversial circumstances.

    His media adviser Jane Grljusich was sacked in November 2017 after she made a bullying complaint against Mr Cook’s then chief-of-staff Erik Locke, which included hurtful emails that referred to her as “Kim Jong Lard” and a text message that suggested she set up a GoFundMe to pay for liposuction. Mr Locke resigned after the matter was revealed in the media.

    Ironically, Ms Spasojevic and Ms Grljusich were the two staffers invited by Mr Cook to attend his swearing-in ceremony as minister in May 2017.

    Ms Spasojevic with Kim Beazley and Hannah Beazley.Ms Spasojevic with Kim Beazley and Hannah Beazley.

    Ms Spasojevic has lodged an appeal to the Public Service Appeal Board over her treatment. She’s also complained to the Public Service Commissioner citing a lack of procedural fairness.

    In the July 1 phone call, she was told the Deputy Premier did not want her working for him anymore due to a “breakdown in trust”. The HR manager accused her of failing to submit a leave form for time off during the previous Christmas and New Year period, when she’d flown with her family to her native Serbia, “unbeknown” to Mr Cook.

    Ms Spasojevic has since produced text messages that show he knew she was in Serbia.

    In one, he wishes her a happy new year and hopes “the holiday is going well.”

    Sanja Spasojevic, back right, and Roger Cook, front left, socialise with their partners.Sanja Spasojevic, back right, and Roger Cook, front left, socialise with their partners.

    She said she did fill out a leave form but claimed Mr Cook tore it up in front of her, along with the leave forms for two co-workers.

    She said it was a “customary and common practice” for WA Labor MPs to do this for their electorate office staff at Christmas in acknowledgement of extra hours put in during the year. She said Mr Cook had done the same thing the previous year. It took weeks before Ms Spasojevic was provided with written reasons for her dismissal — and that was only after asking. A letter from the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Peter Watson, accused her of repeatedly absenting herself from work without prior approval.

    Ms Spasojevic responded that on two of the dates she’d been unwell and worked from home; an arrangement she said Mr Cook was OK with. Even when overseas, she’d continued to deal with electorate emails and important constituency issues.

    A further allegation made in September related to an absence when she was seriously ill at Fiona Stanley Hospital 12 months ago. Her husband had informed Mr Cook of the emergency the night she was taken to hospital by ambulance.

    Sanja Spasojevic with Mark McGowan and his wife Sarah.Sanja Spasojevic with Mark McGowan and his wife Sarah.Ms Spasojevic with Kim Beazley and Hannah Beazley.Ms Spasojevic with Kim Beazley and Hannah Beazley.

    Mr Cook had even sent her a giant bouquet of flowers.

    “I was held in the Critical Care response Unit for two days,” Ms Spasojevic said.

    “After my condition stabilised, I was transferred to a ward where I received antibiotic treatment and further medical tests. “During my stay in Fiona Stanley Hospital I maintained regular contact with Mr Cook and the electorate office.”

    In the termination letter that arrived one month later — after she still refused to sign the deed of settlement — the position had changed. “I note your explanation that the Hon. Roger Cook has generally been aware of your whereabouts and that you answered emails, working remotely and flexibly during periods of absence from the workplace,” Mr Watson wrote. “For the avoidance of doubt, it is not said that the Hon. Roger Cook was unaware that you were periodically absent from the workplace, but rather that you were absent from the workplace without authorised leave.”

    What made her sacking all the more baffling for Mr Spasojevic was that she’d received a commendation from him for her commitment to “Team Cook” just a few months before her sacking. She said he once described her as the “most dedicated electoral officer ever”.

    Sanja Spasojevic during the 2017 election campaign for Mark McGowan.Sanja Spasojevic during the 2017 election campaign for Mark McGowan.

    In another hospital stay in February 2019, when she had to have a toe amputated, she’d even worked from her hospital bed.

    A text message sent to her by Mr Cook on that occasion, also highlighted their informal and chummy relationship.

    “Hey San, don’t want to sound toey or get off on the wrong foot, but all the very best for today’s operation,” he wrote.

    But when she really needed to hear from him, there was radio silence.

    She recalled sobbing in the car park outside the Kwinana office, having been told by HR to leave straight away.

    She was shaking and in “utter shock and disbelief.”

    She’d also been locked out of her computer and had no access to her emails and calendar which made it difficult to respond to the allegations.

    In a text message sent to Mr Cook at 4.41pm on July 1, she wrote: “Roger, please give me the opportunity to leave with dignity. I have never been terminated before in my life and it is a horrifying feeling ... (HR) stated it was about that last trip of mine.

    “Roger, I signed the leave form for the whole period away, including while the office was closed for works. We all did. You tore it up in front of us. Do you not remember this?

    “If there were doubts about my work ethic and methods why did you not tell me and give me an opportunity to rectify the situation or tell me to leave?”

    She said she got a text reply from his phone, but was unsure whether it was Mr Cook’s wording because he always called her San, not Sanja. Some weeks later, Ms Spasojevic was visited by a confidant.

    Sanja Spasojevic, long and loyal electorate officer for Roger Cook until she was sacked in controversial circumstances last year. Pictured with Roger Cook, far left, and other members of the WA Labor party.Sanja Spasojevic, long and loyal electorate officer for Roger Cook until she was sacked in controversial circumstances last year. Pictured with Roger Cook, far left, and other members of the WA Labor party. Credit: Supplied

    “She said Roger had asked her to come and speak to me, that he was really stressed and really unhappy about everything. He said the sacking was done before he knew about it,” she said.

    She doesn’t believe it.

    “As a friend said to me: It appears that the Deputy Premier has loaded the gun and then got others to fire the bullet,” she said. “He’s the one person who could have stopped this.

    “If he had concerns about the lodging of leave forms, why was this not raised earlier?

    “(And if he still wanted me to leave) all it would have taken was one conversation and we would arrange a mutual exit strategy. I would have gone on to work somewhere else without my reputation in tatters and my mental health severely affected.”

    Right, Sanja Spasojevic, centre, Roger Cook and left Jane Grljusich. Both women have since been sacked in controversial circumstances and are fighting their dismissals.Right, Sanja Spasojevic, centre, Roger Cook and left Jane Grljusich. Both women have since been sacked in controversial circumstances and are fighting their dismissals.

    The experience had left her feeling “massively betrayed, hurt and lost”.

    “I was barely functioning for weeks,” she said. “I had lost 12kg over this period. I was so upset that I began chain smoking. I had not smoked for such a long period and my children and husband were extremely worried. I feel that they have broken something in me that was part of my identity for so long. I almost feel like I don't have an identity anymore. Because to me, it wasn't a job. It was who I was.


    I was barely functioning for weeks —I had lost 12kg over this period. I was so upset that I began chain smoking.

    “My self-confidence has taken a major beating and I’ve questioned everything I had believed in and worked so hard for.”

    The irony is that she’d twice tried to quit, because the electorate office and ministerial office were toxic environments riddled with office politics, gas lighting, petty jealousies and inappropriate comments.

    One individual frequently called her “spazo”.”It was a joke on my surname and insinuation of my physical retardation,” she said.

    “Initially, I took this as a joke,” she said. “However, his constant references to my Serbian heritage, being part of the Serbian Mafia and KGB led me to ask him to stop,” she said. His references to my medical condition were discriminating and demeaning.”

    She said there was also encroachment by ministerial staff into the work of the electorate office, which was meant to be separate.

    Sanja Spasojevic and her family campaign for Roger Cook.Sanja Spasojevic and her family campaign for Roger Cook.

    However, the tension and ** in her own office was also dire. During a period when she was working one day at Reece Whitby’s Baldivis office, it was an oasis of calm and professionalism by comparison.

    On the second occasion she’d offered to resign in April 2019, she said were in a Kwinana Marketplace coffee shop

    “I was very upset and emotional. I felt Roger had not intervened (to sort out problems) as he had promised me over a year before.

    “He reassured me that all would be taken care of. I explicitly said to him: ‘Do you have my back Roger, can I trust you?" and he adamantly said ‘Yes I have your back San and this will all be over soon, I promise".

    “The last few months for me and my family have been some of the hardest ever experienced,” Ms Spasojevic said.

    “It is sad and heartbreaking for me, a person believing strongly in the Labor ideals of justice, fairness, work equality and protection to not be afforded these rights myself after devoting twenty-five active years to these founding principles.”

    A spokesman for Mr Cook’s office said “procedural fairness was provided to Ms Spasojevic.”

    “The allegations, and subsequently the reasons for termination of her employment, were very clearly put to Ms Spasojevic. An opportunity to respond was provided to Ms Spasojevic before her employment was terminated.

    “The matter is now before the WA Industrial Relations Commission.”

    A comment Roger Cook wrote about Sanja Spasojevic on a Labor Party form.A comment Roger Cook wrote about Sanja Spasojevic on a Labor Party form.

    Lewd comment contested

    Roger Cook and his former executive officer last night had different accounts of an occasion when the Deputy Premier wrote on a Labor Party form that a resident had “stared at Sanja’s tits”.

    The comment, which was recorded when the pair were campaigning together ahead of the Darling Range by-election in 2018, had made Ms Spasojevic uncomfortable, she said.

    It was brought to her attention by a colleague. But Mr Cook said it was his handwriting — but not his words.

    “The minister was not with her when she door-knocked the male voter,” a spokesman for Mr Cook said. “He just wrote down what she told him about the person.”

    Mr Cook strongly refuted ever making inappropriate comments to Ms Spasojevic.

    “The claims made about my conduct are completely without foundation,” he said last night.

    Ms Spasojevic last night disputed Mr Cook’s account of what happened.

    There was no suggestion of any predatory or inappropriate behaviour towards her, but she said the comment, which was seen by others, embarrassed her.

    Labor staffer Sanja Spasojevic, who worked for Health Minister Roger Cook, shocked over ‘brutal’ sacking | The West Australian

 
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