The ABC’s Four Corners on November 9 unveiled a few secrets that at least two senior Liberal Party MPs would rather have kept concealed. It highlighted that in federal parliament at least some powerful men felt entitled to use their positions to belittle, sexually harass and take advantage of women — in particular younger women employed by them.
A long-standing sexist practice of covering up such bad behaviour enabled these men to escape any consequences. Moreover, these same men were prone to posture about “family values” in their quest to stop laws allowing marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Many of these same men oppose a woman’s right to make their own reproductive choices and are responsible for keeping Centrelink payments to single parents — the majority of whom are women — below the poverty line. These problems are compounded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
The Four Corners program centred around an interview with Rachelle Miller, a former adviser to acting immigration minister Alan Tudge. She described his behaviour as “belittling” and “humiliating”, and said he had failed to support her and others. She and Tudge had an affair in 2017, at a time when he was campaigning against the marriage equality law.
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Miller as stating: “The strong expectation and culture in Parliament was that to be a good staffer you needed to keep quiet, ignore and bury bad behaviour and protect the Liberal Party at all costs.” She added that those who complained about such behaviour were sacked.
Four Corners also scrutinised the hypocritical behaviour of federal Attorney-General Christian Porter. It revealed that Porter had been warned by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about publicly flaunting a relationship with a young female staffer. ABC News reported on November 10 that Porter’s inappropriate behaviour had “contributed” to Turnbull’s “bonk ban”.
The program also interviewed Kathleen Foley, a barrister, who said Porter’s misogynistic behaviour went back to university days. She said he sidelined women in forums and ridiculed them on the basis of their appearance. She said his only interest in women was to “hit on them”.
Four Corners alleged that during Porter’s time in federal politics, there have been rumours about his public drunken behaviour and unwanted sexual advances towards women.
(Is it any wonder that Porter’s plan for a federal integrity commission would not be able to conduct public hearings or make public reports? It would also not act on anonymous tip offs, something that would protect whistleblowers.)
Porter and Tudge’s entitled behaviour with staffers are not isolated cases: they are among a long list of MPs including Barnaby Joyce, Mark Latham and Luke Foley. And the bullying and harassment is not limited to men: Miller was moved from Tudge’s office to Michaelia Cash’s office where she was also bullied.
When the partner-wives speak out, they are often dismissed as bitter and grudge-bearing. They are advised to “move on”, “stay silent” or even “defend their spouses”, as Hilary Clinton did for Bill Clinton in the United States in the late 1990s, making life even harder for the young intern Monica Lewinsky, who was publicly shamed and blamed for the affair.
Women in senior office bearer roles who engage in affairs are often seen as floozies, who have no right to complain. Other women in similar positions often lose their jobs. The men rarely lose out.
Of course, there is a difference between consensual sex between people in a workplace and sexual harassment. The Four Corners program did not explore how consenting relationships between political staffers and MPs can be sexist given the obvious power imbalance. Most political staffers have few legal protections from exploitation and their employment can often be terminated without notice. The issue of genuine consent is therefore a vexed one.
The ABC hinted that the two ministers in question may have preyed on young staffers, but did not go further and explain how institutional sexism helps entrench, and normalise, such behaviour.
This kind of treatment of women in a workplace is a result of institutional sexism. Capitalism relies on institutional and casual sexism to exploit women who continue to shoulder the greater domestic burden, to divide workers and to drive down everyone’s wages and conditions.
Despite anti-discrimination laws, women still earn less than men and, as we have been reminded by the pandemic, are the first to lose their jobs and the last to regain them.
Capitalism uses women as a reserve labour force, which it draws in and out of the labour market as needed. Often childcare is so expensive that women are forced to give up jobs to care for children.
The majority of carers are women and, as the crimes of the for-profit aged care and disability sectors are revealed, this role has become more important. Many women give up full-time work to care for others because sexism provides capitalism with the ideological ballast to normalise this for women.
The impact of sexual harassment on women in the workplace can be severe: it can lead to depression, self doubt, anxiety, shame, guilt, self blame and physically in headaches, nightmares, sleep problems and panic attacks. Many will be demoted or moved from their jobs, or “choose” to move.
At a time when the labour movement needs to unite and fight for a solid safety net and against wage freezes justified by the pandemic recession, we also need workplace education and appropriate compulsory training in all workplaces about rights and protections to prevent exploitation, including sexually, especially of young people.