Politics, sexual harassment and the spectre of the 'smear campaign'

Politics, sexual harassment and the spectre of the ‘smear campaign’

Monday night on Q&A, an audience member asked: “In light of Mayor Robert Doyle’s leave of absence, could the #MeToo movement be used as a political smear campaign in Australia in 2018, as seen in the US with would be Senator Roy Moore in Alabama.”

First, let me get this out of the way: Oh come on!

I’m with Q&A host Virginia Trioli, who asked, somewhat incredulously: “You see what was said about Roy Moore as a smear campaign against him?”

Now for my more nuanced response.

The spectre of a politically motivated “smear campaign” is a particular type of deflecting tactic that is most commonly used in, but not entirely limited to, politics. It’s the go to battle cry for politicians to derail any acknowledgement that political culture may be rife with sexual predation. It’s a variant of the woman scorned/ false allegation tactic.

The not so subtle underlying message is that women can’t possibly be telling the truth if they claim they were sexually harassed by a politician. Though the political class may acknowledge sexual harassment is rife in broader society, and in particular in the media and entertainment industry (in the post Weinstein era, who could credibly claim otherwise), women who make allegations against politicians must have been put up to it by a politically motivated opponent.

Nothing to see here folks. Move on.

And raising the spectre of a politically motivated smear campaign is all the more insidious when it is widely validated, as it was by two other panellists on Q&A.

“It worries me that campaigns and even talk of organised smear campaigns will get a head of steam and will take all before it, and I don’t like that one little bit,” said author Maxine McKew on the panel.

“There’s a potential for a smear campaign against anyone without evidence, so it is important that there be natural justice,” said Labour MP Anthony Albanese.

In response, Virginia Trioli asked exactly what I was thinking: “Where’s the talk of the organised smear campaigns?”  Indeed, where is it?

I’ll tell you where it is. “Talk” of organised smear campaigns is just that “talk”, usually uttered by the very individuals accused of misconduct (often not terribly convincingly). The actual smear campaigns, I believe, are orchestrated against those who come forward with allegations.

Let’s take a few examples.

In October of last year, Donald Trump, the so-called “Harasser in Chief”, said at a campaign rally, “I am the victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country. They are coming after me to try and destroy what is considered by even them the greatest movement in the history of our country.”

During his recent run for the Alabama Senate seat, Roy Moore suggested his numerous accusers were part of a smear campaign, incorrectly claiming that they had participated in attack ads against him. Allusions to the McCarthy era were made.

Here in Australia, in 2012 Nelson Gerry Wood, an Independent Northern Territory MP, claimed he was the victim of a smear campaign after details of a sexual harassment case he settled in 2009 with a female staffer were leaked to the media.

In 2015 in Victoria, the allegations of a female staffer who accused Small Business Minister Adem Somyurek of bullying  were dismissed as little more than factional payback.

And in one of the highest profile cases of sexual harassment allegations in recent political memory, that of former Speaker Peter Slipper in 2012 , claims of a smear campaign were central to the Labour response.

Depending on which side of politics you sit, you may have a particular view on the credence of some of these claims.

But before you reach any conclusions, spare a moment to compare them to the experiences of many of the women (and some men) who have come forward with allegations. And when you see the extent to which they were vilified and smeared, ask yourself: Is it really likely that they were all put up to it as part of some elaborate cloak and dagger political game? Why on earth would they put themselves in that position?

Remember the young female diplomat who last year accused former Cities Minister Jamie Briggs of inappropriate behaviour while on an official visit to Hong Kong? Following the complaint, Briggs and his supporters circulated photos and identifying details of the young woman to the media. These actions were described by some as worse than the incident itself.

Remember Stefanie Jones, whose allegations against former NSW Labor Kingmaker Jamie Clements in 2015 resulted in his resignation? After she came forward, she claims she was harassed by colleagues and openly called a “slut”.

“I think if I had my time over again, I would just run away,” Jones told the Daily Telegraph. “It’s been soul destroying. Everybody wants it swept under the carpet,” she added.

That, precisely, is the point. Everyone — that’s politicians on all sides — want this swept under the carpet, and the spectre of the politically motivated smear campaign is the very big broom they hope to sweep it all away with. They are making sexual harassment a partisan issue, and that, pardon the pun, will never do if we really want to clean house.

Over the past month, I have been looking into the issue of sexual harassment in Australian politics. (Earlier this week, Womens’ Agenda published my exclusive investigation revealing there isn’t a specific sexual harassment policy protecting staff working for Federal politicians.)

I started asking questions because I found it very strange that while scandals were felling politicians in Washington and Westminster on an almost daily basis, here in Australia there was relatively little speculation that the reckoning would affect our politicians.

I was offered lots of reasons for this by various individuals who work in the press gallery or who have worked in Australian politics.

One of the biggest themes was that no one — on either side of politics — wants to make the first move. They all know they have skeletons in the closet and don’t want to risk losing one of our own.

So here we are. In an environment where it seems our politicians can agree on very little, they all seem to agree that there is a real risk orchestrated smear campaigns involving false allegations of sexual harassment will be levelled at politicians. Funny that.

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