I’m sure when Christmas rolls around, Scott Morrison, Alan Tudge and Christian Porter will be sending Joel Fitzgibbon their warmest seasons greetings.
This could have been a parliamentary week where Morrison felt some pressure about the Coalition’s indefensible record on climate action. That didn’t happen because of Fitzgibbon’s freewheeling fandango up and down the press gallery corridor.
A fact-based assessment of climate policy wasn’t the only casualty. Monday night’s Four Corners episode (parliament’s #MeToo moment, as the Greens later dubbed it) was also supposed to spark an extended and perhaps even thoughtful conversation about culture and accountability in the patriarchal palace that is Parliament House.
A conversation certainly happened in the corridors, in the encrypted messaging apps and on the opinion pages. But it, too, was largely overshadowed by the Fitzgibbon show and by the government warming up the public for what will obviously be a horrendous report next week about the behaviour of some Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
It’s now a matter of record that the government tried very hard to dissuade the ABC from pursuing the investigation that was screened on Monday night. That lobbying didn’t work.
After the program was aired, it was clear the prime minister didn’t want to convene an extended seminar when reporters gathered in his courtyard. When it came to gender, sex and power in politics, Morrison acknowledged suboptimal things may have happened in times past. But he (Morrison) supported Malcolm Turnbull when Turnbull sought to ban sexual relationships between ministers and their staff; ministers knew what his (high) standards were; there were no live matters before him currently; and PS: Australians understood human frailty.
Case closed, in other words.
It was hard to know which of Morrison’s remarks attracted the more audible groan from women scattered around the parliamentary precinct: the case closed segment, or when the prime minister spoke across Anne Ruston because he had an unfinished thought to convey when she was attempting to answer a question that had been posed to her (“as a woman”) by a male journalist.
If you are on social media, you will have seen the moment in question, but I felt a bit sorry for Morrison with the Ruston misfire.
The prime minister’s intention was to rebuke journalists for reducing the Turnbull-era “don’t sleep with your staff” code to the “bonk ban”, as it is colloquially known. It was extended finger waggling about the choice of words rather than telling his female colleague to hold his beer while he proceeded to mansplain.
But there was a room watching outside, and Morrison failed to read it.
Tuesday morning’s rebuke to journalists in the courtyard was sparked by a Four Corners episode trying to capture a pernicious form of silencing, an institutional indifference to women’s experiences and contributions, which of course made Morrison’s Ruston moment look emblematic rather than incidental – like a live-action replay of unconscious but pervasive cultural blindness.
I don’t want to get into the specifics of Monday night’s allegations, because I’ve got zero value to add. I’ve confessed before I’m a reluctant (and, let’s be honest, completely hopeless) sex correspondent. I’m always the last to know what’s being whispered in the bars of Manuka and Kingston because this year I turned 105, and the tiny sliver of time that exists beyond my punishing work days is reserved for my family and friends, and for gazing restoratively at a wall or at Lake Burley Griffin.
For the record, I was also concerned when Turnbull imposed the “bonk ban” (sorry, prime minister) – not because requiring that particular standard was wrong. Requiring that standard is absolutely reasonable. My concern was drawing that red line would licence people in my position to focus even less on policy and fixate on “character”.
But I also have a professional obligation to the truth, an obligation I take very seriously, and I need to play my part in trying to make things better.
So my purpose this weekend is simple. I want to convey to you clearly what women have told me about their experiences as parliamentarians and staffers. I also want to share what I have seen in more than 20 years of constant co-location with this particular subculture.
Courtesy of Julia Gillard’s bitterly contested prime ministership, we’ve all learned about institutional misogyny in politics. We’ve seen what that looks like, it was disgusting, and I was one of the people who didn’t call it out enough, mostly because I didn’t want to believe it was happening.
Professional politics and the cadre serving it remains male-dominated. On my podcast this weekend, the independent MP Helen Haines recounts experiences of going to meetings accompanied by a male adviser and having parliamentarians and staffers engage with the adviser rather than with her. I’ve heard loads of unconscious bias stories during the 20-plus years I’ve worked here – too many: different anecdotes, same punchline.
Very few women make it to senior levels in political staffing. If you’ve got young kids, and you commute to Canberra with your boss for the parliamentary sittings, life is impossible unless you’ve got an incredibly supportive spouse.
People outside politics also don’t understand the culture. Ministers offices are like fiefdoms, everything revolves around the principal. The staffer class in Canberra is a strange combination of powerful (because they serve powerful people and they don’t face the same accountability mechanisms as public servants) but also powerless in the sense that they serve entirely at the pleasure of the boss and the chief of staff.
Some staffers are policy-focused, but many are partisan and tribal, seeking advancement within their own political movements, so being “difficult” can kill your career prospects stone dead. As one former senior female staffer, a person who had a positive experience in the backroom, put it to me this week: “It’s a bit like the mafia: you are part of the family, and you don’t offend the family.”
Most women I know have survived staffing without running into harassment, or gendered bullying. Many really love the life.
But I also know people who have had dreadful experiences in political offices that they still don’t want to talk about publicly, either because they want to move on with civilian life, or because offending the tribe impacts their future professional opportunities. Speaking out puts a target on your back.
While political parties have processes for dealing with instances of harassment or superiors abusing their power, the culture of politics makes things complicated. If you are a woman in a toxic political office without much power, and you are trying to fend off unwanted advances from a superior, or if you are on the receiving end of ceaseless bullying, it is really hard in such an hierarchical culture to take yourself off to the leader’s office and make a complaint.
That act involves asserting you have an independent identity and agency, which offends the first rule of staffing. It’s also a minefield to bring trouble to your boss, to your office, because it’s politics, and things get weaponised.
Anyone watching politics knows that ministerial codes of conduct are very arbitrary things, sometimes enforced, sometimes not.
In terms of professional standards, the political ecosystem isn’t a rule-of-law jurisdiction. Whether people are penalised for bad behaviour ranging from incompetence through to abuse of their office is entirely circumstantial and discretionary, and everybody knows it.
So now we’ve arrived at the heart of the problem: the permissiveness of politics.
It is entirely reasonable to have a discussion about whether politics needs clearer codes and enforceable rules. It would be a productive conversation, for example, to consider whether there should be an independent human resources and broader integrity function serving parliamentarians and their staff, a body empowered to assess and mediate and arbitrate if there are grievances.
But more welcome than this would be a clear sign – a market signal, if you like – at the highest levels of leadership, that politics is not a consequence-free zone.
Because if we boil all this all down, that’s what’s lacking. A signal of seriousness. A consistent signal, right from the top, that bad judgments carry consequences; that politics is capable of discerning right and wrong, and enforcing those standards.
Because without that signal, anything goes.
The benchmark becomes what you can get away with, rather than what is right, and we all know that is the slipperiest of slippery slopes.