Grotty week for PM as Parliament’s noxious culture is laid bare
In a sensational end to a grotty final 2021 sitting week, former Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller’s claim a minister had acted violently towards her was carefully timed to underline Kate Jenkins’ scathing indictment of the parliamentary workplace.
Education Minister Alan Tudge was forced to stand aside after Miller – who returned to Parliament House to make her statement – accused him of kicking her out of bed when her phone rang at 4 am.
Former Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller and Education Minister Alan Tudge.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
She said it happened during a 2017 work trip, when she and Tudge were in a hotel in Kalgoorlie, where then-PM Malcolm Turnbull was also staying.
Miller was Tudge’s media adviser. The two had what Miller has described as a consensual affair, but now says was more complicated. “It was [an] emotionally and, on one occasion, physically abusive relationship.”
It’s notable how different Scott Morrison’s reaction has been to this Miller allegation, compared with her earlier complaints about Tudge, made last year on the ABC’s Four Corners.
Morrison pushed those aside, dismissing them as history that had been dealt with. In this instance, he immediately referred the matter to an investigation, to be conducted by Vivienne Thom, former inspector-general of intelligence and security.
Admittedly, Miller has now gone a step further in accusing Tudge – who flatly denies the claim – of violence.
But the political difference is the timing. Miller’s allegation follows all that has come out this year about bad behaviour in Parliament House, triggered by Brittany Higgins’ allegation she was raped in 2019, and now documented in the 452-page Jenkins report.
On issues relating to women, Morrison walks among landmines. Thursday’s Miller claim showed how dangerously and unexpectedly one can detonate.
It’s hard to know the extent to which Morrison’s so-called “women’s problem” will cost him votes at the election. But one seat where woman power might be significant is the Sydney marginal electorate of Wentworth, where independent candidate Allegra Spender (the late Carla Zampatti’s daughter) is being backed by female corporate high-flyers including Christine Holgate, the former Australia Post boss.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison in question time on Thursday as Federal Parliament wrapped up for the year.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Holgate accused Morrison of bullying with his extraordinary parliamentary attack on her over rewarding employees with Cartier watches. What goes around comes around.
The Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s description of a noxious political workplace was on show at every turn this week.
Immediately after Tuesday’s release of her report, opposition and government indulged in mutual sledging in question time.
In the Senate, Victorian Liberal David Van was accused of making dog noises when independent Jacqui Lambie was speaking. He apologised for interjecting but denied he’d made any animal sound.
On Wednesday Greens senator Lidia Thorpe made a particularly offensive remark to NSW Liberal Hollie Hughes, saying during an altercation, “at least I keep my legs shut”.
Hughes on Thursday said she took from this “that had I kept my legs shut, I wouldn’t have a child with autism”. Thorpe, who’d apologised, denied the suggestion she was referring to Hughes’ family.
Hughes told Sky: “Everyone – MPs, senators, staffers, everybody – needs to hold themselves to account. We’re adults. This is a professional working environment and people should behave that way.”
To which one might say, “If only.” And, more to the point, one might ask: “Well, why don’t they?”
The Jenkins report has multiple recommendations, based on a forensic review of the culture of the parliamentary workplace.
Both government and opposition loudly lamented the situation she documented, but neither committed to full implementation of what she proposed.
Jenkins digs down to the many drivers and risk factors contributing to bullying and sexual harassment, which she identifies as including power imbalances, gender inequality, lack of accountability, bad leadership, confusion about standards, long hours, stress, alcohol, travel and a work-hard-play-hard mentality.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins launching her report on the workplace culture at Federal Parliament on Tuesday.Credit:Jessica Hromas
Miller’s account of the Kalgoorlie night appears to have involved a number of these.
But explanations are not excuses, and it’s hard to go beyond a very basic point.
While many parliamentarians – who are at the centre of the Parliament House “ecosystem” – behave well, too many simply don’t believe they need to follow the standards the community has the right to expect of them.
If they conducted themselves properly and set high standards for their staff, Parliament House would be on its way to becoming a half-decent workplace.
One point that’s been made is that politicians, in taking on staff and running their offices, are their own small businesses, but many don’t have the skill set to run these businesses.
That task might be unfamiliar for them, but surely not that hard to get on top of. At least that might be the view of many small-business people around the country, who have to confront their own (albeit different and often more difficult) challenges.
Rachelle Miller details her allegations against her former boss, Liberal MP Alan Tudge, at Parliament on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
And as for the bad conduct in the chambers, there is just no excuse. It shows massive disrespect to those who pay the parliamentarians’ salaries.
For Scott Morrison the past fortnight has been deeply frustrating, as well as politically risky.
Coalition rebels helped stymie the government’s legislative program, such as it was.
A House of Representatives vote on the Religious Discrimination Bill had to be put off to prevent a revolt by moderate Liberals. This bill will now face two inquiries over the summer.
The government’s promise to introduce legislation for an integrity commission has been turned into a farce by the PM. On the back of the ICAC investigation of former NSW premier Gladys Berijiklian, Morrison has dug in behind the unrevised model, indicating he won’t bring in the legislation because Labor won’t agree to that model, which is widely criticised as flawed.
After everything that has happened this week, and what hasn’t been able to happen, you’d wonder why the government would want parliament to sit again before the election.
Sittings never work politically for this government. Unless it can get its two rebel senators and the two Hanson senators to lift their boycotts on government legislation – they are protesting against the refusal to override state vaccine mandates – and calm other rebels, legislation that is contested doesn’t get through.
Asked on Thursday whether he would continue his boycott into next year, Queensland Liberal Gerard Rennick said it would depend on what the federal government did on the mandates between now and then. Hanson’s spokesman had a similar message.
The draft sitting calendar for 2022, issued this week, has Parliament returning in February, with the budget on March 29. Morrison can always tear this up in favour of a March election, but he’d obviously prefer a budget to set the agenda for a May poll.
But Health Minister Greg Hunt and former minister Christian Porter were taking no chances, this week both announcing they would not run again.
It might have been a momentous week – in a bad way – but the conversation will abruptly change on Friday, when Labor finally releases its much-awaited climate policy.
It’s stating the obvious to say this is a big day for the opposition, which has had an internal debate over whether to make the policy small-target (only a little different from the government’s) or go for something bolder, to amp up the differentiation on the climate issue.
On Sunday Anthony Albanese will hold a rally, with a likely further policy announcement.
“We will make sure we are kicking with the wind in the fourth quarter,” Albanese likes to say. Between now and mid-December, when he is intending to go on holidays, the crowd will be watching how well the opposition leader connects boot and ball.
Michelle Grattan is professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. This article was first published on The Conversation.
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