The sorry political history of impropriety
What is it about parliamentari ans — invariably male ones?
The allegation that led to Luke Foley falling on his sword on Thursday was hardly anything new in parliament.
Foley has denied the allegation and says he intends to sue the ABC, but you don’t need a long memory to recall examples of stupidly drunken behaviour involving MPs who are paid well to hold the electorate’s future in their hands. How could we forget Matt Brown? He was the NSW police minister when he quit in shame in September 2008 after dancing semi-naked on a green leather couch during a party in his office in Parliament House and simulating a sex act on then Labor MP Noreen Brown. At the party, which happened during budget sittings, he was reported to have climbed on top of the Wollongong MP’s chest before turning to her adult daughter and calling out, “look at this, I’m titty f ...... your mother.” Mr Brown strenuously denied using the words described. “I’m a human being and I made a mistake and I’m going to cop the consequences of that mistake,’’ Brown, a former solicitor, said at the time.
He said he remembered taking off his shirt and dancing but did not remember taking off his pants.
“I don’t recall parading around in my underwear,” he said.
“I know I took my shirt off and I know I did have a dance. I was working off steam in the privacy of my own office with workmates.”
Employment lawyers say there is no “privacy” in a workplace when it comes to sexual harassment and parliament is a workplace like any other.
Without commenting on any particular case, Kamal Faroque says if it happens in parliament, the victim could complain to the Speaker of the House.
“It’s often the case that an employer is responsible for that behaviour if they have not taken reasonably steps to prevent the conduct occurring,” Faroque, principal lawyer in employment and industrial law with Maurice Blackburn, says.
“How that applies to parliamentarians is a more complex question.
“Certainly the parliamentarians themselves would be responsible for their conduct. There may be an argument that a government department of the state is responsible.”
Yet sexual harassment still happens among those who make those very workplace laws, our parliamentarians.
“Parliament has a unique role and ability to influence culture through policy and regulation,” says the Australian Institute of Employment Rights executive director Renee Burns.
“As an employer, indeed Australia’s largest employer, the government has a duty to lead by example.”
The AIER Charter of Employment Rights says that not only do all workers have the right to a workplace free from harassment, discrimination and bullying but they also have the right to dignity. It is a quality sadly lacking in parliament.
A lot of people have been waiting for the #MeToo movement to reach the hallowed halls of Canberra.
A female friend who has reported on Canberra politics says it is common to be groped. Any man who does that knows it is wrong. It is sexual assault.
Another friend who has worked in the press gallery talks of pushing away slobbering drunken advances from male politicians who think they are attractive.
During the ABC’s Q&A on Thursday night, deposed prime minister Malcolm Turnbull hit out at the culture for women in parliament, describing it as “very blokey” and like an environment of the 1980s.
Not that that would be any excuse. What is disgusting these days was just as bad 40 years ago.
Turnbull said his “socalled bonking ban” is something he should not have had to introduce and “should be pretty obvious”.
The ban, which prohibits ministers having sex with their staff, followed the scandal of former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce having an affair with his staffer Vikki Campion, during which she got pregnant and he left his wife.
“I believe the culture in parliament is not sufficiently respectful of women,” Turnbull said on Thursday.
“Scott Morrison absolutely shares my values on this.”
Canberra is a different kettle of politicians than NSW parliament.
It is a hothouse atmosphere where almost everyone — MPs, staffers, journos — is living away from their partners and their families, dining out most nights instead of having a takeaway in their sad hotel rooms, making contacts and drinking too much. What happens between consenting adults is different to sexual harassment or sexual assault.
Faroque says that anyone who says “it’s only a grope” has to change their attitude. “Groping behaviour can be an indecent assault under the criminal law and be illegal under anti-discrimination law,” he says.
“Where there is a physical contact or perhaps even threatening statements of a sexual nature, that can constitute a sexual assault and a criminal offence.”
In state Parliament, most politicians can return home for the night but there is still a culture of drinking at work and institutionalised sexism.
As an employer, the government has a duty to lead by example Renee Burns
Her ability to control the issue, as she wanted to, was taken away from her. I respect every single word she uttered in her statement Premier Gladys Berejiklian
Foley has vehemently denied ABC journalist Ashleigh Raper’s claim that he put his hand inside her underpants and “rested it on my buttocks” at parliamentary Christmas drinks in 2016.
While the allegations had been doing the rounds for some months at least, it was a man, Prisons Minister David Elliott, who used the reporter’s very private experience as a political weapon under parliamentary privilege, which means he cannot be sued for defamation.
Elliott’s female boss, Premier Gladys Berejiklian, made no bones about her feelings.
She said yesterday that she was disappointed that Elliott took control of the story out of the hands of the journalist.
“I’ve expressed my absolute disappointment that her ability to control the issue, as she wanted to, was taken away from her,” Berejiklian says.
“I respect every single word she uttered in her statement.”
Elliott issued a brief statement yesterday saying he didn’t mean to distress the journalist but stopped short of apologising.
“This has clearly been a difficult time for the journalist. To that end, it was never my intent to cause distress for the journalist,” Elliott says. Raper says she never wanted to go public with the story.
Parliament can be a ruthless place.
In 2013, John Brogden quit the Liberal leadership apologising for describing former premier Bob Carr’s wife Helena as a “mail-order bride” and was accused of unwelcome advances on two female journalists at a function, including pinching one on the bottom.
Two days later he attempted suicide.
Two years ago, NSW Labor general secretary Jamie Clements resigned after damaging allegations from a former female staffer that he tried to kiss her in the parliamentary office of Campbelltown MP Greg Warren.
Stephanie Jones sought an AVO and Clements agreed not to approach her for 12 months.
Earlier this year, senior Malcolm Turnbull adviser Caitlin Keage lost her job after publicly posting texts sent between her then boyfriend NSW Fair Trading minister Matt Kean and Liberal NSW backbencher Eleni Petinos.
Shortly after the affair was exposed, Mr Kean said: “I am deeply sorry my relationship with Caitlin has ended in such a spectacular and sad fashion. I wish her all the best.”
In November 2013, the former Premier and then Opposition spokesman for police and emergency services Nathan Rees stepped down after his extramarital affair with a constituent was exposed.
Four years earlier, thenHealth Minister John Della Bosca, who had been campaigning hard behind the scenes to oust Rees when he was premier, resigned after it was revealed he had been having an affair with 26-yearold Kate Neill, who said they had sex on the couch in his parliamentary office.
Meanwhile the annual NSW parliamentary Christmas drinks are scheduled for two week’s time. The bar is said to be stocking up on mineral water and herbal tea.
Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce with ex-staffer and now partner Vikki Campion.
NSW Labor general secretary Jamie Clements and (left) Stephanie Jones.
Clockwise (from above left) Luke Foley resigns, Ashleigh Raper, John Brogden, Matt Brown and Kate Neill.