First things first. Though this column is indirectly about Barnaby Joyce, it is not really about Barnaby Joyce. Just in case you are fed up with the whole affair, pardon the pun. Please read on.
I want to return to one of my favourite hobby horses these past few months: the possibility that Australian politics is rife with sexual predation, the kind that recent events have shown is commonplace in both the US and UK.
I’m still puzzled that a reckoning on sexual harassment in politics hasn’t quite reached Australian shores. But recent events in Australia suggest that the “nothing to see here folks”/ burying your head in the sand and hoping the storm engulfing politicians abroad will simply blow over strategy, may not be a sustainable long term plan.
That brings me to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s pretty spectacular press conference this week, at which he, to use the term since trending on Twitter, “banned the bonk”.
Watching the evening news programs and reading the first hot takes of Turnbull’s quite spirited performance, the vast majority of which concentrated on the “small P politics” — including whether the PM was trying to save face after a week of terrible headlines and reclaim the moral high ground or whether he had thrown Barnaby “over a cliff” and this was a power play to push him out — I wondered if I had, in fact, watched the same press conference as other commentators.
To me, and I realize I may be in the minority, Turnbull’s press conference indicated that someone in Canberra had, at last, received the #MeToo memo.
Does he fear or know that more damaging revelations are coming, revelations of the not so consensual variety? Is he trying to get out ahead of more scandal? Maybe.
The willingness of the PM to (belatedly) take such a public stand on the gendered power imbalances that define workplace relations more generally in politics, where men overwhelmingly have the power and relatively few women work even in junior roles, suggests we may be at the start of something. Let’s call it #MPToo. (I didn’t invent that phrase. All credit goes to British journalist Cathy Newman).
Whether revisions to the Ministerial Code banning Ministers from having consensual sexual relationships with their staff is a sufficient response to a world-wide movement exposing sexual harassment and assault in workplaces is another matter, but more on that in a moment.
Over the past ten days, we have peeled back a lot of layers on the Joyce story. Is this in the public interest, we’ve asked, as we examine his hypocritical moralizing in relation to “private” matters like LGBTQI marriage and women’s reproductive health. We’ve also explored the double standards faced by women in public life versus men in relation to “private” matters, and the potential abuse of power and misuse of public funds regarding the employment of someone with whom a Minister/ MP is having a consensual relationship. These are all important issues and worthy of our attention.
But there is an additional, very important, layer to this story that has, until yesterday’s “banning of the bonk”, been deemed less newsworthy. Less in the “public interest”. And the extent to which you engage with this aspect of the debate probably has a lot to do with whether or not you think this whole affair has anything to do with #MeToo. To my mind, the answer to that question is yes.
I believe the issue of consensual office relations between Ministers and their junior staff with whom they have a direct management relationship raises serious concerns about abuse of power.
And I am not alone in holding that view. The US Government, a growing number of corporations around the world and Australia’s very own Fair Work Commission have recognised the perils or such relations. Or in the words of the Prime Minster, “everyone knows no good can come of it”.
I’m not sure I would go that far, but certainly a lot of bad can come from an environment in which senior men believe that junior women who work for them are a resource they can draw upon for private pursuits. And when those relationships end, history shows that it is the more junior, less powerful woman in those relationships who is at the pointy end of the power imbalance. On these points alone, it’s worth debating.
But then there’s the question of the role these consensual relationships have in creating an environment where unwanted behaviour can flourish. Writing for the ABC, Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, observed that:
“If politicians think relationships with their staffers are allowed, they’re more likely to proposition them. And in a legislature that is 80 percent male, it is female staffers that would otherwise bear the brunt of persistent unwanted attention. In other words, harassment.”
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Australian writer Amelia Lester wondered why these kinds of questions had not featured more prominently in the media debate around Joyce: “We’re in the midst of a complicated and charged debate about workplace gender dynamics. This story is being received in a different way than it would have been even two or three months ago. Are journalists sufficiently confident in how readers think in these fluid days of 2018 to make the judgment that a powerful man’s relationship with a woman who works for him is not significant? In other words, is the media keeping up with the culture?”
That’s a good question.
So back to the Prime Minister and the banning of the bonk. This intervention by the Prime Minister has clearly helped raise some of these issues up the agenda.
I watched the press conference with some, very qualified optimism, that this might be the start of something. That the Prime Minster was sending a signal that he planned to show some leadership here. He did, after all, go to an Our Watch event earlier this week stressing the importance of bystander action in relation to violence against women.
Is he now the “PMStander”?
But before you worry I’ve gotten carried away, like I said, it is very qualified optimism. I agree with my esteemed colleague Georgina Dent that the change to the Ministerial Code is low hanging fruit. It’s not quite bottom of the tree. Words met with no action at all, a not uncommon feature of the Government, really would have been the lowest hanging fruit.
I would just advise the Prime Minister that if he’s really serious about addressing power imbalance in Parliament and its’ possible manifestation in sexual harassment, and I hope he is, he should tap the Department of Finance on the shoulder and ask if they plan to develop a proper sexual harassment policy governing MP’s and their political staffers. My investigation for Women’s Agenda late last year revealed they are “woefully inadequate”.
And he might get serious about improving women’s representation in the senior ranks of the Coalition, offering a similar public smack down to his colleagues who resist change. I’m looking at you Queensland LNP MP Luke Howarth.
I’m just getting started.
In the press conference Turnbull tried to speak directly to women affected by these issues. “Many women who work in this building understand very powerfully what I am saying.” Yes indeed. I’m sure they do. But those very same women will be watching very closely to see what the Prime Minister actually plans to do about it.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica