Australia's Federal Government is destroying its own reputation scandal by scandal, writes Dr Lee Duffield.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape and sexual abuse
THE NEW SOUTH WALES Premier’s farewell on 1 October has added to a bad look for her Party on the after-hours behaviour front.
A sad aspect of Gladys Berejiklian’s political fall is that it had to be over a “head-on-the-pillow” scandal — feeding into the undeniable phenomenon that women politicians get rougher treatment over sexual matters than men.
Head on the pillow
The classic “head-on-the-pillow” affair was that enjoyed by the then British War Minister, John Profumo, who at the height of the cold war shared a party girl with a bon vivant gentleman from the Soviet embassy.
In Ms Berejlikian’s case, it was her former clandestine relationship with the State Liberal MP Daryl Maguire. The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) says it is investigating whether as a Minister she facilitated certain special benefits for his electorate. There are other matters, where Mr Maguire’s business dealings have been under investigation by ICAC.
With “head-on-the-pillow” scandals, what counts is the policy influence the partner might exert or any gain they might extract from the actions of the particular office holder at work.
Gladys Berejlikian’s explanation for resigning as NSW Premier and as an MP is that preoccupation with a drawn-out ICAC investigation would have harmed that state during the pandemic. The investigation might now go ahead without that kind of distraction.
Is the country being run by grubs?
Will any of this adversely affect the prospects of Berejlikian’s political Party, the Liberals, in government both in Sydney and Canberra?
It might at a cultural level if it gets jumbled up in the minds of voters with a litany of bad-look events involving prominent figures in that Party, about bad behaviour mixed in with sexism and sex. To that can be added the financial scandals — mostly pork barrelling on the way to elections. Will they come to think the country is being run by grubs?
The second most recent development in the reputations field was the resignation from the Ministry of Christian Porter on 19 September, after the disclosure that he was getting financial support in a defamation case against the ABC from a blind trust. It might be allowed, but was unsustainable because of the secrecy involved.
The actual contribution of the affair to a certain spoiling of the Liberal image was the subject matter of the ABC report in question, which cited an accusation that a current minister had committed an act of rape during his school days. Porter volunteered that the story, amid the circumstances given, was plainly about himself, denied it and sued.
This was with some sense of resentment in his statements, mentions of “trial by mob”. The affair came amid a rush of other bad-look publicity for the Party and Government to do with the mistreatment of women.
Shushing of Brittany Higgins — gone wrong
A development just three days before Porter’s resignation was the long-awaited charge in court against Bruce Lehrmann, accused of the rape of Brittany Higgins on a couch in the office of the Defence Minister in March 2019. Both were members of Liberal ministerial staff.
It would keep the scandal going, reviving impressions of some kind of partisan rabble operating behind the scenes in government. Among voters, this might now be feeding into some ire on two fronts: about yet another story on grubby antics coming out of the Liberal Party and about the goings-on of spin doctors, the massaging of public opinion, political showmanship, as a hallmark of the Government — these days also indelible in the personal reputation of Scott Morrison, the Liberals’ Prime Minister.
“Scotty from Marketing”
The dramatis personae of the affair are from the stable of ambitious young folks committed to the “politics industry”, most highly invested in the game, revelling in “the life”, keen on presenting in public, excited to be in a good job at the centre of things — already skilled in many of the tricks.
Ms Higgins has demonstrated courage and a talent for the game worthy of “Scotty from Marketing” himself, accusing him personally of ‘briefing against’ her loved ones; a potent accusation in what was a climate of protest against Morrison over the handling of the issue of abuse. Sensationally enough, this achieved a one-to-meeting for her with the Prime Minister, reportedly “honest and frank”, at the end of April this year.
As for the “loved ones”, the introduction to the general public of Brittany Higgins’s partner, David Sharaz, was deftly controlled by the couple through social media channels. The expression “briefing against” had been a clue that this loved one would be from among the ministerial staff, lobbyists, the media pack or thereabouts. It transpired Mr Sharaz was indeed no incidental stranger to the game, as a broadcast journalist with political connections, including stints with Sky News and SBS, and work as a ministerial media advisor last year.
Their small campaign had hallmarks of media management lessons well absorbed:
- Give attention to presentation and if possible, you be the one controlling how the story comes out.
- Content-wise, come what may ensure your story is told — unless you’re in crisis management and decide to run dead.
- Attack the attacker. If a reasoned response is not getting heard or featured, resort to this to diminish what the attacker says (and often their will to say it). An angle on that in the Higgins case was the response to criticism as “victim-blaming” — an accurate enough response in most instances, as with the commercial radio man talking about a “silly little girl who got drunk”.
Some of the lines of debate about this affair as it slowly made its way to the courts: Why in the “ministerial culture” was there such preference given and pressure applied to keep it quiet? Why were the police not called on to investigate sooner? By extension, how can police be better resourced and prepared to handle sexual assault cases?
Trashing the Liberal look
As to the trashing of the reputation of the Liberal Government by members in its own ranks, certain others have been adding grist to the mill.
The National Party Coalition partners have lent a hand, restoring Barnaby Joyce to Party leadership in June, making him Deputy Prime Minister of the country. No consideration was paid to reputation damage over the pregnant press secretary or claims of sexual harassment that saw the man resign in February 2018. As it turned out, they just sin-binned him for a while and you can take it or leave it.
Add in, too, the case of Andrew Laming the Liberal Member for Bowman, a man with a hapless way of getting into hot water in the public media over accusations of “inappropriate” ways with women then getting out of it. Blamed and blameless, his decision in March to leave Parliament at the next election, in the look of things was another black mark on his Party.
Not forgetting Craig Kelly, Federal Member for Hughes, who resigned from the Liberal Party last February. His office manager, Frank Zumbo, has been charged over historical sexual offences against young women, following complaints about the work culture in the electorate office.
Labor left out of it
In case the mud being flung on itself by the Liberal Party is ascribed to “Canberra culture” generally, “politicians” or the power game, the Opposition has taken up an option to sit out the whole furor.
It isn’t them and they don’t want misdemeanours raised up from the Party tradition, of which there would be several over time. Some Liberals and others have tried airing a few cases saying it’s “them too” but no mud has been sticky enough to stick.
See an extended version of this article at subtropic.com.au.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.
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