Despite numerous accusations of sexual assault and a nationwide protest, the response to claims made in Julia Banks’ new book Power Play reminds us that the Liberal Party hasn’t changed, writes Hayden O' Connor.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape and sexual abuse
LATE LAST YEAR, Four Corners’ ‘Inside the Canberra Bubble’ program revealed Alan Tudge’s affair with a staffer and Christian Porter’s misogynistic behaviour during his university days. This year, Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped by a Liberal party staffer in 2019. Christian Porter named himself as the Cabinet Minister accused of rape before we were made aware that NSW Police failed to take a statement from Porter’s accuser. Craig Kelly’s staffer Frank Zumbo was charged with historic sexual offences. And a Liberal staffer was sacked for masturbating over a Female MP’s desk.
What has happened since then?
Linda Reynolds is still in Cabinet despite calling Brittany Higgins a “lying cow”. The Phil Gaetjens investigation into who knew what and when has been a complete farce. The man accused of raping Higgins has not yet been charged.
There is now a Cabinet Taskforce for Women’s Safety and economic security set up to do exactly the job that Minister for Women Marise Payne should have already been doing.
Christian Porter is still in Cabinet. There has been no parliamentary investigation, no independent inquiry and no investigation as to why NSW Police didn’t take a statement from his accuser. We have since found out that a friend of Porter made a statement to NSW Police claiming that Porter boasted about having sex with his accuser despite previously claiming to have never slept with his accuser when defending the rape allegation.
Barnaby Joyce is now Deputy Prime Minister (again) despite having had an affair with his former staffer Vikki Campion and having previously being accused of sexual harassment. There is now a petition calling for him to be removed from The Women’s Safety Taskforce.
The only people to suffer any real consequences (outside of the victims and their families) were the two staffers — Frank Zumbo and the desk wanker. Everyone else has got off scot-free thanks to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s slim majority and penchant for a Cabinet lacking integrity.
Given these events the, “I don’t see any sexism” reaction from Liberal MPs was ridiculous but yet not a surprise when independent MP Julia Banks revealed just a few days ago, in an extract from her new book Power Play that a Cabinet minister placed his hand on her knee and slowly moved his hand to her inner thigh and up her leg. The former Liberal MP also revealed other examples of sexism as well as suggestions of backgrounding to the media on Scott Morrison’s orders after Banks announced that she would not recontest the next election.
“That’s not one of the things I’ve witnessed,” said Health Minister Greg Hunt in response to the claims made by Banks in Power Play. Victorian MP Katie Allen also had a similar response but added “that’s not to say it didn’t happen”.
When you consider all that has occurred this year involving Brittany Higgins, Christian Porter, Frank Zumbo and others, it is hard to accept from any federal politician (Liberal or Labor) that they haven’t witnessed sexism in federal politics.
Banks isn’t the only former Liberal MP to speak out against sexism in her party. Julie Bishop claimed that she regularly battled with “gender deafness” during her time in Cabinet and Kelly O’Dwyer stated that her federal colleagues were regarded as anti-women.
On 4 July on Insiders, when questioned by David Speers on the claims made by Julia Banks, Simon Birmingham said:
“Obviously, such behaviour is inappropriate and if there are issues there, well, they ought to be appropriately reported by any individuals.”
The term “inappropriate” is an extremely weak word to describe running your hand up someone’s thigh without consent. Inappropriate is a bad joke, not an unwanted sexual advance.
It highlights the relaxed attitude to this sort of behaviour, as if it is considered the norm inside the Liberal Party. Birmingham doesn’t suggest that he believes Banks, either, just that she should appropriately report the incident “if there are issues there”. When someone reports unwanted physical contact and sexism, there are clearly issues that must be dealt with — yet Birmingham’s phrasing suggests that these issues might not be there at all.
Birmingham did next to nothing when he was made aware of Chelsea Potter’s rape allegation in 2019. Birmingham was first informed of the allegation by a journalist and despite having employed Chelsea Potter for six years, he made no attempt to contact her. When Potter reached out to Birmingham via text message, he offered her nothing but the suggestion of contacting the Women’s Information Service or 1800 Respect.
If that’s the usual response given by Liberal MPs when someone comes forward with allegations of rape, it’s hard to imagine that Julia Banks would achieve anything by “appropriately” reporting her claims against the unknown Cabinet minister.
Simon Birmingham goes on to confirm that the Independent Complaints Body likely wouldn’t handle retrospective accusations such as those raised by Julia Banks, stating that it:
“...becomes a point as to where do you draw the line in those regards?”
The notion that a line should be drawn on historical accusations of sexual misconduct is disturbing. It’s an insult to anyone working in the Federal Parliament who has been harassed or sexually assaulted and a big win for any politician or staffer who is guilty of such crimes. For those who are guilty, they’ll not have to worry about this new complaints body — they’ll only have to worry about the police and we’ve seen how that’s worked out for Brittany Higgins and Porter’s accuser.
The lack of consequences for politicians and the comments from Birmingham, Hunt, Allen and others show that the Liberal Party still isn’t taking sexism seriously. They aren’t taking sexual assault and harassment seriously.
They aren’t even pretending to change — they’ve just preselected Henry Pike for the federal seat of Bowman, a man who doesn’t deny having previously fat-shamed women in a group chat with texts including:
‘[It] states quite clearly in the Bible that f****** a fat chick is a sin beyond redemption.
All I know was I walked in on a scene of absolute sexual carnage... we had [NAME WITHHELD] in bed with what could only be described as a small planet.’
The text messages weren’t enough to forbid Pike from contesting the pre-selection after an investigation as they occurred 12 years ago and they don’t reflect the person that Pike has grown to be. Pike was the only man contesting the pre-selection; he defeated four other women (supposedly on merit) to gain the nomination.
For anyone in the Liberal Party to suggest that they haven’t witnessed sexism is so ridiculously unbelievable that if it wasn’t so serious, it would border on being comedic.
Don’t forget, this is the same government whose first Prime Minister Tony Abbott stood next to signs that read ‘ditch the witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s bitch’ in reference to Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. A Liberal National Party fundraiser dinner had Julia Gillard on their menu described as ‘small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box’.
It doesn’t matter how many petitions we sign, how many times we march or protest, the Liberal Party isn’t going to change — sexism is in their DNA.
If you want change, vote them out.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
Hayden O’Connor is an I.T. professional from Tasmania who currently lives in Melbourne. You can follow Hayden on Twitter @HaydenJOConnor.
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