In­side the Vic elec­tion dirt files

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In the wake of the Vic­to­rian elec­tion, billed as a tri­umph of pos­i­tiv­ity over neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing, staffers re­veal the lengths po­lit­i­cal par­ties went to in re­leas­ing dirt on their op­po­nents. By Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray.

It was the morn­ing of the day the Her­ald Sun would carry his name on its front page, and Paul McMil­lan was on sui­cide watch. Hours ear­lier, the Greens staffer had pre­sented him­self to a hospi­tal’s emer­gency de­part­ment, ac­com­pa­nied by his part­ner. He first told his story to a triage nurse, who later asked McMil­lan’s part­ner if the story was true – “pre­sum­ably be­cause it was some­thing some­one with psy­chosis might say,” McMil­lan told me.

Over the course of that night and into the early morn­ing, McMil­lan re­peated his story to the in­quir­ing emer­gency doc­tors who would check on him.

Twelve hours after his self-ad­mis­sion, at 9 o’clock on Mon­day morn­ing, the cri­sis as­sess­ment and treat­ment team ar­rived. A mem­ber of the team, com­pris­ing psy­chi­a­trists rather than emer­gency doc­tors, was di­rected to McMil­lan. “So,” they said. “What hap­pened?”

The re­sults of the Vic­to­rian elec­tion sur­prised even its own bene­fac­tors. La­bor watched, with grin­ning as­ton­ish­ment, as the vot­ers of Brighton – the ver­dant, bay­side ci­tadel of Men­zies lib­er­al­ism – flirted with elect­ing their teenaged place­holder can­di­date. Some­thing was up. Some­thing big.

Elec­tion out­comes are ob­vi­ously com­plex, mul­ti­causal. There is a swirl of fed­eral, state and lo­cal is­sues. But this mul­ti­causal­ity, and the im­pos­si­bil­ity of de­ter­min­ing, pre­cisely, the weight of ev­ery vari­able, gives cover to those in­vested in con­ceal­ing calami­ties.

Yet if Lib­er­als were now star­ing at a pre­pon­der­antly red map, and bit­terly re­in­forc­ing their di­vi­sions, La­bor were largely of one mind: in­sid­ers told me they won be­cause they were pos­i­tive, be­cause they sold their achieve­ments and as­pi­ra­tions, be­cause they had ig­nored the me­dia and con­sulted di­rectly with the peo­ple. So did out­siders. On elec­tion night, for­mer Lib­eral pre­mier Jeff Ken­nett, not with­out his own axes to grind, praised the pos­i­tiv­ity of An­drews’ cam­paign.

As a La­bor cam­paigner told me:

“I’d never heard An­drews or a min­is­ter talk­ing about the me­dia per­pet­u­at­ing gos­sip, in­sider crap. They never felt the need to say it. They weren’t des­per­ately try­ing to con­vince the pub­lic, ‘We’re not in­sid­ers, we’re just like you.’ They were con­fi­dent that they were speak­ing to vot­ers di­rectly about is­sues that mat­tered to them. They were al­ways con­fi­dent that their mes­sages were res­onat­ing. Didn’t worry about what the me­dia were say­ing, nor did they feel they had to at­tack the me­dia. I don’t think vot­ers are lis­ten­ing to me­dia com­men­ta­tors, or what the ed­i­to­ri­als are, or the scan­dals on the front page.”

It was a pos­i­tive cam­paign, but not with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tion. In five in­nercity seats – three held by the Greens, two by La­bor, all of them, no­tion­ally at least, a crap­shoot – the con­test was ruth­less. While the An­drews gov­ern­ment em­pha­sised its pro­gres­sive achieve­ments for the elec­torates’ pro­gres­sive vot­ers – Safe Schools, vol­un­tary eu­thana­sia, im­proved renters’ rights, a state treaty process, in­creased fund­ing for pub­lic trans­port – it had also de­ter­mined to ruth­lessly ex­ploit the Greens scan­dals, to “hoist them on their own petard” as one cam­paigner told me.

There was no short­age of ma­te­rial. “The Greens stand ac­cused of 23 cases of in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour in­clud­ing bul­ly­ing, dis­crim­i­na­tion and even sex­ual as­sault,” read one La­bor-en­dorsed poster that had be­come ubiq­ui­tous in Mel­bourne’s in­ner city. An as­so­ci­ated web­site of­fered news sources for the al­le­ga­tions, which in­cluded a story this pa­per had re­ported on an al­leged sex­ual as­sault and bun­gled re­sponse from the ACT Greens.

Among the list of scan­dals and al­le­ga­tions were claims of sex­ual dis­crim­i­na­tion and bul­ly­ing made against Vic­to­ria’s pre­vi­ous Greens leader Greg Bar­ber, who had set­tled with a for­mer staff mem­ber but said that he had never con­ceded the com­plaint, and an al­le­ga­tion of sex­ual mis­con­duct made against New South Wales Greens MP Jeremy Buck­ing­ham by a party mem­ber, which he has de­nied and ar­gued an in­de­pen­dent work­place in­ves­ti­ga­tion had cleared him of. Fol­low­ing Luke

Fo­ley’s res­ig­na­tion as NSW Op­po­si­tion leader last month, after it was re­vealed he al­legedly in­ap­pro­pri­ately touched a re­porter, a claim Fo­ley de­nies, NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong spoke in par­lia­ment to re­pros­e­cute ar­gu­ments for Buck­ing­ham’s res­ig­na­tion. “Jeremy’s ac­tions and be­hav­iour – some widely re­ported and doc­u­mented and some still held in con­fi­dence, which must be re­spected – have had a real and last­ing con­se­quence on in­di­vid­ual women, mem­bers and for­mer mem­bers of our party as well as ac­tive vol­un­teers in our party,” she said.

Shortly after Leong ’s speech, the fed­eral Greens leader, Richard Di Na­tale, echoed her call. This oc­curred dur­ing a Vic­to­rian cam­paign that quickly strung to­gether scan­dals of vary­ing sub­stance. Up­per house can­di­date Joanna Nil­son re­signed after the Her­ald Sun pub­lished so­cial me­dia posts from 2015 that joked about sho­plift­ing and recre­ational drug use. It was dis­cov­ered that Footscray can­di­date An­gus McAlpine, in a past life as rap­per DJ FatGut, had rapped about date rape and “fag­gots”. Nil­son’s res­ig­na­tion was ac­cepted, but McAlpine re­mained as a can­di­date, re­ceiv­ing the full sup­port of the Greens hier­ar­chy.

Some Greens mem­bers to whom I spoke were con­fused about the ap­par­ent in­con­sis­tency, and mused on their be­lief that sup­port for McAlpine was sim­ply the mea­sure of his in­flu­en­tial po­lit­i­cal al­le­giances. The Greens de­nied this. In a state­ment to me, Vic­to­rian Greens leader Sa­man­tha Rat­nam said: “Each case is as­sessed in­di­vid­u­ally and in its own con­text. As a sup­port can­di­date, Joanna of­fered her res­ig­na­tion so as to not be a dis­trac­tion for the cam­paign ... An­gus has clearly demon­strated he is com­mit­ted to the val­ues shared by the Greens. He went through a chal­leng­ing pe­riod in his life where he made some ex­tremely poor choices, but came out stronger on the other side. The Greens be­lieve in peo­ple’s ca­pac­ity to change. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in pol­i­tics.”

Two days be­fore the elec­tion, the Greens can­di­date for San­dring­ham, Do­minic Phillips, was stood down after the party re­ceived an al­le­ga­tion of rape against him. Phillips has not yet re­sponded pub­licly to the al­le­ga­tion. “We have acted swiftly and de­ci­sively, we’re tak­ing it very se­ri­ously and the can­di­date has been stood down,” Rat­nam said. “This is a very, very se­ri­ous mat­ter and we have taken it with the se­ri­ous­ness it has re­quired and tried to en­sure due and fair process to all in­volved.”

In an ad­di­tional state­ment to me, Rat­nam re­sponded to ques­tions about the party’s vet­ting pro­ce­dure: “The Greens will un­der­take a full elec­tion re­view fol­low­ing the 2018 cam­paign, in­clud­ing vet­ting pro­cesses. It is im­por­tant for pro­cesses to be up­dated as tech­nol­ogy changes and more of can­di­dates’ lives are played out on­line.”

Dis­clo­sure: I have known Paul McMil­lan for years. In the days fol­low­ing his hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion, I was a friend, not a jour­nal­ist. Writ­ing on this is ob­vi­ously fraught. While my re­la­tion­ship may colour the story, I don’t be­lieve it dis­cred­its it.

A lit­tle over a year ago, McMil­lan joined the elec­torate of­fice of Lidia Thorpe, after her his­toric elec­tion as the first Indige­nous woman to the Vic­to­rian par­lia­ment. The No­vem­ber 2017 North­cote by­elec­tion, which fol­lowed the death of its La­bor in­cum­bent, Fiona Richard­son, was po­litely con­tested be­tween Thorpe and the La­bor can­di­date, Clare Burns, who en­joyed a wash of money, the pres­ence of a pop­u­lar pre­mier and the un­veil­ing of La­bor’s rental re­form bill. On the ground, how­ever, re­sent­ments fes­tered be­tween the two cam­paign teams, who ac­cused each other of dirty tac­tics.

Both par­ties ex­pected the re­sult to be close – as it was, though, the by­elec­tion was called within hours. The Greens had at­tracted a tri­umphant swing of 11.6 per cent, deny­ing La­bor the seat for the first time in al­most a cen­tury.

The Greens party op­ti­misti­cally ex­trap­o­lated – could it win five lower house seats next state elec­tion? Was a La­bor–Greens coali­tion a pos­si­bil­ity? On the La­bor side, some de­ject­edly pon­dered their fu­ture in the in­ner city. It was pre­ma­ture. Four months later, in March of this year, a fed­eral by­elec­tion was held in the seat of Bat­man, an elec­torate that in­cludes all of North­cote. The La­bor cam­paign was large, dis­ci­plined and en­er­get­i­cally co­hered around its pop­u­lar can­di­date, Ged Kear­ney. The Greens, mean­while, were dispir­ited, suf­fer­ing a highly pub­lic in­ter­nal cam­paign of sab­o­tage. Kear­ney won com­fort­ably.

Still, come last week’s state elec­tion, the Greens were op­ti­mistic. Five seats re­mained a pos­si­bil­ity, and few thought the party could lose the seat of North­cote won only a year prior. But there was the spec­tre of scan­dals – mul­ti­ple scan­dals, and grave ac­cu­sa­tions, across dif­fer­ent states – and then the un­for­giv­ing at­ten­tion to a string of lo­cal ones.

There are of­fi­cial cam­paign strate­gies, with their en­dorsed bud­gets, talk­ing points, me­dia re­leases, pledges, cor­flutes and di­rect mail. Then there are the un­of­fi­cial el­e­ments, some­times con­ducted by mis­chievous free­lancers, some­times com­mis­sioned with a wink and a nod. These small shadow cam­paigns, acts of de­flec­tion or mis­di­rec­tion, are com­mon and un­seen by the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers.

In Mel­bourne’s in­ner city, Face­book pages sprouted that were pur­port­edly the work of ag­grieved ex-Greens mem­bers im­plor­ing pro­gres­sive elec­tors to vote La­bor. They also de­vel­oped Face­book ad­verts, which could be tar­geted to those liv­ing in con­testable seats. “Not

Our Greens” was one such page that – ac­cord­ing to a La­bor cam­paigner – was made by La­bor mem­bers.

Else­where, the North­cote Greens re­ceived word that McMil­lan’s Twit­ter ac­count, go­ing back to 2012, had started to at­tract at­ten­tion. Nine days out from the elec­tion, Greens me­dia ad­vis­ers were no­ti­fied of the threat and told that “your staffer is not go­ing to have a good week”. This would prove true.

“Shit sheets” – the col­lec­tion of com­pro­mis­ing ma­te­rial on a po­lit­i­cal ri­val – are as easy to pull to­gether as search­ing some­one’s so­cial me­dia. Then, they’re shopped around to jour­nal­ists. In McMil­lan’s case, there is no sug­ges­tion at all that the po­lit­i­cal use of his tweets was au­tho­rised by the La­bor party.

McMil­lan’s se­lected tweets can­vassed sex, pae­dophilia, racism and var­i­ous al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct made against Greens fig­ures. One tweet, taken from his feed and of­fered to re­porters, read: “If I was a Greens MP un­der sus­pi­cion for sex­ual as­sault or a party fig­ure im­pli­cated in a wider

cul­ture that is un­safe for women, I would sim­ply claim that any and all claims are a fac­tional at­tack.”

McMil­lan says it was of­fered not as dark ad­vice but as his own an­gry, in­cau­tious thoughts on Jeremy Buck­ing­ham. All the other tweets were equally in­cau­tious. “I had a tweet that was par­o­dy­ing some­one’s view that Mus­lims had tried to ban Christ­mas,” McMil­lan says of an­other post. “So we had a thread of peo­ple par­o­dy­ing this thought, with ver­sions of that. Mine was say­ing, ‘I can’t be­lieve Mus­lims have banned me smear­ing my­self in pig grease’, or some­thing. Out of con­text, it looks hor­rific.”

Faced with the tweets, Greens me­dia ad­vis­ers thought a pos­si­ble frame for the story would be “Greens staffer con­demns his own party”. In­stead, the Her­ald Sun’s piece pre­sented the tweets as gen­uinely held be­liefs rather than sar­casm. The Satur­day Pa­per un­der­stands that other me­dia out­lets, ap­proached with the story, dis­missed it.

Late Sun­day night, the story went live on­line: “Greens MP’s staffer of­fers to quit over vile tweets,” read the head­line. Sub­se­quent ar­ti­cles de­scribed the tweets as “sick­en­ing” and “misog­y­nis­tic”.

“My tweets were used to im­ply that I was say­ing the com­plete op­po­site of what I in­tended,” McMil­lan says. “They found what they thought would work best to dam­age Lidia and didn’t give any thought to the in­ten­tion of the tweet – they thought about how the tweet would look in iso­la­tion, in the worst pos­si­ble faith.”

McMil­lan of­fered his res­ig­na­tion on Sun­day af­ter­noon. It was im­me­di­ately ac­cepted. Lidia Thorpe pub­licly ex­pressed frus­tra­tion and dis­ap­point­ment, not­ing that it was an em­ploy­ment breach, but also that the tweets were satir­i­cal. Sa­man­tha Rat­nam told me: “As a staffer, Paul is sub­ject to em­ploy­ment con­di­tions that were clearly breached.” She later added: “I will leave the ques­tion of how eth­i­cal it is to trawl through so­cial me­dia ac­counts and drop out-of-con­text dirt sheets to me­dia out­lets for La­bor to an­swer, but it was telling that they re­fused to de­bate on pol­icy.”

Two days after the story, the Her­ald Sun pub­lished a pho­to­graph of a young La­bor can­di­date for the up­per house. Ly­ing naked on a large spread of copies of Monash Uni­ver­sity’s stu­dent mag­a­zine, Lot’s Wife, Jan Morgiewicz en­sured some mod­esty with one copy opened over his crotch. Morgiewicz said the photo was a sar­donic re­sponse to his be­lief that the mag­a­zine had been po­lit­i­cally ex­ploited by stu­dent fac­tions; the for­mer ed­i­tor, see­ing Morgiewicz’s use of the mag­a­zine’s yearly fem­i­nist is­sue, be­lieved the im­age was grossly dis­re­spect­ful of a “pub­li­ca­tion that ad­vo­cated and pro­vided a voice for women”.

La­bor saw a re­tal­ia­tory move from the Greens – but it was a spit­ball in re­sponse to a grenade. Morgiewicz was an un­winnable fourth on the La­bor ticket for North­ern Vic­to­ria. Still, one cam­paigner won­dered where it might end. An hour after its pub­li­ca­tion, I re­ceived a text from a La­bor cam­paigner: “I think we’re all go­ing to re­gret this.”

They were only half jok­ing.

Come elec­tion night, the Greens suf­fered a statewide swing against them of 1.7 per cent. The party’s fe­male vote de­clined, its hopes were dashed in Rich­mond, and North­cote was lost. With count­ing still con­tin­u­ing, we can­not say what the Greens rep­re­sen­ta­tion will ul­ti­mately be in the Vic­to­rian par­lia­ment – but it’s pos­si­ble it may be whit­tled to just one mem­ber in each cham­ber.

“I’m proud of the plat­form we put for­ward and our strong field cam­paign,” Rat­nam said. “We con­cen­trated on is­sues that are crit­i­cal to Vic­to­ria’s fu­ture: ad­dress­ing home­less­ness and hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity, a plan to get out of coal and move to 100 per cent re­new­able en­ergy, and a world-class pub­lic trans­port sys­tem. It is not the re­sult we hoped for and we are dev­as­tated to lose MPs. Lidia Thorpe will be a great loss to the par­lia­ment, es­pe­cially in keep­ing the gov­ern­ment ac­count­able as Vic­to­ria pur­sues treaty ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

Cam­paign­ers from both sides ex­pressed to me some ap­pre­hen­sion about the po­lit­i­cal “weapon­is­ing” – that word was used a lot – of the #MeToo move­ment. Not least be­cause it was seen by some as the cyn­i­cal co-op­tion of vic­tims’ sto­ries, used ei­ther in the ab­stract or, worse, used specif­i­cally and against the wishes of the women in ques­tion.

Ob­vi­ously, these is­sues are not lim­ited to the Greens. We saw this tac­tic when an al­le­ga­tion of sex­ual ha­rass­ment against Barn­aby Joyce, lodged pri­vately with the West­ern Aus­tralian Na­tion­als in Fe­bru­ary this year, was leaked de­spite the com­plainant’s re­quest for pri­vacy.

We saw it again when ABC re­porter Ash­leigh Raper’s pri­vacy was re­peat­edly com­pro­mised, prompt­ing a pub­lic state­ment about her al­le­ga­tions against Luke Fo­ley: “This is a po­si­tion I never wanted to be in and a state­ment I never in­tended to make. But I think the time has come for my voice to be heard, for the fol­low­ing rea­sons: The es­ca­la­tion of the pub­lic de­bate, in­clud­ing in state and fed­eral par­lia­ment, de­spite my ex­pressed wish to nei­ther com­ment nor com­plain, and the like­li­hood of on­go­ing me­dia and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­est.”

There is no sug­ges­tion that Greens scan­dals, and ques­tions about the party’s or­gan­i­sa­tional cul­ture, are not fair game for the La­bor Party. A Greens mem­ber told me that if these scan­dals were ven­ti­lated dur­ing an elec­tion, so be it; it needed to be done. But the pa­ram­e­ters of these at­tacks are rarely drawn in good faith – they re­sem­ble arms races more than any sin­cere at­tempt to im­prove po­lit­i­cal cul­ture.

Last week, when Sky News pan­el­list Paul Mur­ray was speak­ing with guests off-air – but, un­wit­tingly, not off-mic – he fumed about the Greens han­dling of al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct. “These are the peo­ple who have pushed the thresh­old of ‘an ac­cu­sa­tion equals guilty’ to the point – un­less of course there’s an ac­cu­sa­tion against them,” he said. “No, fuck you! You can en­joy the sys­tem you’ve cre­ated for ev­ery­one else. You know, you can en­joy the hair-trig­ger of ac­cu­sa­tion and...” Mur­ray didn’t fin­ish the com­ment – he was back live.

This isn’t a unique view. There is a sharp ac­ri­mony be­tween La­bor and Greens cam­paign­ers, not least in the in­ner-city seats of Mel­bourne, where their ri­valry is most prac­ti­cal. In con­ver­sa­tions with La­bor cam­paign­ers, there is an in­sis­tence on Greens’ hypocrisy – the space be­tween their rhetoric and re­al­ity. This re­sponse, from a La­bor cam­paigner is fairly rep­re­sen­ta­tive: “If a party has a scan­dal, or an is­sue, it’s not un­usual for op­po­nents to make hay of it. The Greens have cer­tainly seized upon things La­bor can­di­dates have said or done. The Greens left them­selves open to at­tack, and La­bor, to be bru­tally hon­est, was a lot bet­ter at it.”

The cam­paigner con­tin­ued: “The Greens want to be a big party, but as soon as they face the same crit­i­cism or scru­tiny of the big par­ties, they re­treat. It’s an un­for­giv­ing game. The fact that we live in a world and a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture that is un­for­giv­ing, and if we see some­one who of­fends our moral stan­dards, we’re very quick to at­tack them – even if we know that as hard as we go after our en­e­mies, they’re go­ing to come back at us. When you cre­ate a cul­ture where peo­ple make mis­takes, that they’re ir­re­deemable, you have to know it will be turned back on you … The Greens fucked up pretty badly. You can’t fight these things with such pas­sion and be sur­prised when you’re called out as a hyp­ocrite.”

THE PA­RAM­E­TERS OF THESE AT­TACKS ARE RARELY DRAWN IN GOOD FAITH – THEY RE­SEM­BLE ARMS RACES MORE THAN ANY SIN­CERE AT­TEMPT TO IM­PROVE PO­LIT­I­CAL CUL­TURE.

La­bor’s anti-Greens cam­paign was ef­fec­tive, not least be­cause more than a few Greens mem­bers felt dis­il­lu­sioned. But while the La­bor cam­paign against the Greens may have been le­git­i­mately grounded, and sub­con­cus­sively ef­fec­tive, it func­tioned – like so much po­lit­i­cal rhetoric – as a gi­ant ham­mer. It blud­geoned all man­ner of scan­dals, il­lu­sory or grave, into one lump of ev­i­dence.

Out­side the heat of the zero-sum con­test, cam­paign­ers of both stripes ad­mit­ted to me that where there are con­cen­tra­tions of pow­er­ful men, there will likely be abuses of that power. More nu­anced con­cerns were also raised – just when, ex­actly, do we pub­licly ex­ile peo­ple from pub­lic life, to ren­der them per­sona non grata? When – and why – do we pre­clude an in­di­vid­ual’s ref­or­ma­tion?

Our po­lit­i­cal de­bates are made in­creas­ingly in­sen­si­ble with ran­cour and bad faith – and even Paul McMil­lan recog­nises the twin edges of the ide­o­log­i­cal sword. “Maybe if this had hap­pened to a cam­paigner in an­other party, I’d have been more than will­ing to con­demn him,” he says. “That’s trou­bling.

I don’t like that.”

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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