The controversy about the ABC Four Corners exposé by Louise Milligan of alleged consensual sexual relations between ministers and staff in Parliament House ("Inside the Canberra Bubble") contains many conflicting elements. The mix of the ABC, Malcolm Turnbull, federal Coalition government ministers and Milligan herself is potent enough, for starters. Cutting through the accusations and counter-accusations is a huge job.
The program focused particularly on allegations against two ministers, Christian Porter, the Attorney-General, and Allan Tudge, the acting Minister for Immigration. Both are accused of conducting consensual relationships with staffers, in Tudge's case one of his own staffers. The program's major theme was the imbalance in workplace power relations between male ministers and female staffers, but other themes included hypocrisy by "family values" ministers conducting such affairs and, introduced by Turnbull, the special responsibilities of the Attorney-General and the dangers of such ministers being potentially compromised by foreign agencies.
Reactions to the program have been extraordinarily varied and have been clouded by party politics, by perceptions of the ABC as an enemy of the government, by suggestions of payback by Turnbull against Porter, by pre-existing views of Milligan, who was one of the chief critics of Cardinal George Pell, and by general social attitudes to adulterous relationships per se (relaxed or censorious).
There has also been the question of consistency between treatment of Labor and Liberal offenders; media treatment of Barnaby Joyce, the case that led to Joyce's resignation as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister; and the introduction of the Turnbull's so-called "bonk ban" barring sexual relations between ministers, married or single, and their staff.
The allegations related to the Turnbull period, thus allowing Scott Morrison to respond that it was not his problem. Some critics have dismissed the allegations as mere hearsay, while for others it is in the public interest to reveal them, hearsay or not. For some old hands in the press gallery it is just another case of affairs in Parliament House and its environs, involving MPs, staffers, journalists, and others, which have a long history. The danger has been raised of going down the slippery slide of the British tabloids' treatment of sex and politics.
That is quite a package of issues to untangle in one go. A helpful place to start is to try to distinguish between the major issues central to the program and those others which, while important, are generic to such media coverage.
Let us put some issues, including the ABC and the personalities, to one side and look at the program on its merits, while accepting that it had some flaws. The over-emphasis on Porter's alleged misogyny at university, in a clear attempt to damage his character, was one such flaw.
The Coalition tried hard to stop the program going to air on the grounds that it was politically unbalanced because it concentrated only on Coalition ministers. The ABC's defence was that the biggest story involved present-day government ministers, not others, and that the same two names kept coming up in interviews and other research. We must take their word for that.
The ABC position stands up, but admissions that the problem applies across all parties should be followed up. That requires evidence and interviewees willing to go public. Even such a program would not satisfy those critics who believe there is no public interest in such revelations.
The protection afforded such behaviour by competitive party politics is one of the major issues. The party in question will always circle the wagons and rarely break ranks. Despite the clear gender dimension to this issue, this protection racket involves women MPs and ministers too. Those who break ranks are dismissed as outliers and cleared out. This happened after the allegations of Coalition women being bullied during the Dutton-Morrison leadership challenge against Turnbull.
- Christian Porter, Alan Tudge revelations spark call for cultural change (Subscriber only)
- Mark Hearn: The Morrison government is facing a character test
- Virginia Haussegger: Parliament's male-dominated culture has let men off the hook for too long
- Jenna Price: Why would any parent want their child to become a political staffer?
As there are skeletons in the closets of all parties, neither side of politics will break ranks. A further increase in the number of women in politics will probably not solve the problem. There are already enough senior women on both sides of politics to have addressed the matter if that was the only key.
The second major issue is that Parliament is a workplace and employees, whatever their contractual details, are trapped in a power imbalance. The alleged behaviour should not be acceptable in Parliament, and is no longer thought acceptable in other workplaces, including in the corporate and public sectors.
The third major issue is hypocrisy and fitness to lead. The charge that political leaders who preach one thing and do another are hypocrites is a telling one. Even the charge of walking past and not acting on ethical breaches by others is rightly condemned. Military leaders and church leaders, among others, have been held to account on such grounds.
Given Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, the character failings of political leaders, including their attitudes towards women, cannot ever be dismissed. But it also cannot be avoided that otherwise successful leaders, including Bob Hawke, one of Australia's most popular prime ministers, have been hugely flawed in this regard.
The line is often a fine one between workplace behaviour, which must be transparent, and personal behaviour, which deserves privacy. What if the complainants on "Inside the Canberra Bubble" were private sector workers or schoolteachers rather than ministerial staff?
But that was not the case. Parliament House is a workplace. Transparency, informed always by consistency, is an appropriate cause for the media in such matters. Then it is up to each voter, putting party politics aside, to weigh up the character and fitness of our leaders. Some of them are clearly failing.
- John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.