Dog noises, name calling, claims of abuse: a week of shame in Australian politics

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Allegations of abuse and accusations of widespread sexism. Bullying and harassment particularly of women. A cabinet minister stood aside pending an investigation into claims by a former staffer that their relationship was at times “abusive”. Even by the low standards of the Australian parliament, it was a week of horror in Canberra.

The final sitting week of parliament for the year began with a long-awaited report on sexual harassment and cultural issues within the parliament, which found one in three parliamentary staffers “have experienced some form of sexual harassment while working there”.

The report itself had been ordered after a former staffer alleged she had been raped by a colleague inside a minister’s office – now the subject of a criminal trial.

It included anonymous testimony from staffers, mostly women, about the abuse they had been subjected to while doing their jobs.

“The MP sitting beside me leaned over. Also thinking he wanted to tell me something, I leaned in. He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating,” one staffer reported.

“I have female colleagues who take fake binders … to committee meetings so a male MP won’t try to kiss them.”

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, in accepting the report, said he wasn’t overly surprised by the findings.

“Like anyone who works in this building, I find the statistics that are presented, they’re of course, appalling and disturbing,” he said. “I wish I found them more surprising. But I find them just as appalling.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison looks on during Question Time
The prime minister Scott Morrison. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

The review put together by the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, painted the parliament as a boys’ club with no consequences.

But just hours after the prime minister pledged to make the parliament a more respectful and safe working environment, politicians were caught making sexualised and gendered slurs.

A male government senator was accused of making dog noises while a female senator spoke in the chamber. He apologised for the interjections, but denied he had made animal sounds, claiming his face mask may have muffled his words.

The tone did not improve. The following day, senator Lidia Thorpe apologised for yelling “at least I keep my legs shut” at another senator in the chamber. Over in the lower house, opposition MPs heckled government MPs to “get a room” in response to a friendly question between a female backbencher and male minister.

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While parliamentarians slugged it out over who was worse on issues of respect, Rachelle Miller, a former press secretary to cabinet minister Alan Tudge, came forward on Thursday with allegations of emotional, and in one case physical, abuse she said she experienced while in a 2017 relationship with the then-married minister. Tudge categorically rejected the allegations in a statement later that day.

Miller had gone public with the relationship in late 2020, as she called for cultural change, alleging her career ended when the relationship soured, while she watched Tudge be promoted.

It was the release of the review into parliamentary culture, along with the public activism of former and current staffers and female MPs, that prompted her to talk, saying her previous attempts at “reaching out” to the prime minister and others had been ignored.

“I’m fully aware that a year ago I said that my relationship with minister Alan Tudge was a consensual relationship but it’s much more complicated than that,” she said.

“I was so ashamed, so humiliated, so scared. I was exhausted. I told a small part of the story I was able to manage. It took a long time to face the truth about what happened but the memories are clearly etched in my brain. This relationship was defined by significant power imbalance. It was emotionally, and on one occasion, physically abusive relationship.”

Miller accused the minister of physically kicking her after her phone woke him early one morning.

“He continued to kick me until I fell off the side of the bed and ended up on the floor. I searched around in the dark for my clothes,” she said. “He was yelling at me that my phone had woken him up. He needed to get some more sleep. He told me to get the fuck out of his room and make sure that no one saw me.”

Tudge has “completely and utterly” rejected Miller’s claims. He had previously admitted to the relationship but this week strongly refuted any allegation of abuse, or that Miller’s career suffered as a result.

“I have accepted responsibility for a consensual affair that should not have happened many years ago. But Ms Miller’s allegations are wrong, did not happen and are contradicted by her own written words to me,” he said in a statement, referring to text messages Miller had pre-emptively suggested in her own statement may be used against her.

“I regret having to say these things. I do not wish Ms Miller ill but I have to defend myself in light of these allegations, which I reject.”

After almost a year of criticism over his lacklustre response to the allegations rocking the parliament, an under-siege prime minister announced Tudge would stand aside from his ministerial duties while an independent investigation into Miller’s claims was carried out.

The happenings in federal parliament were almost seen as depressingly normal, in a year when women marching for justice were told by the prime minister it was a “triumph of democracy” they weren’t greeted with bullets.

A protesters holds a placard during the Women&#x002019;s March 4 Justice in Canberra
Protesters outside parliament during the Women’s March 4 Justice. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AP

Morrison is still to announce his government’s response to the review of parliamentary culture, which recommended more focus on gender parity, independent complaints processes and entire systemic change from the top down, ensuring the issue will follow him into what is shaping up as a difficult election year.

Greens senator Larissa Waters said there needed to be clarity the sex discrimination’s recommendations would be fully implemented “and the culture of our toxic parliament will change”.

“This has been the year that the veil was drawn back on the extent of predatory sexism and abuse of power in our nation’s parliament,” she said. “Because of the bravery of survivors, there is now no hiding from it.”

For those fleeing the nation’s capital on Friday after parliament rose, the only concern was putting as much space as they could between themselves and the scenes inside Parliament House.

“It was a fucked week to be a woman in that building,” one MP said. “And given this year, that’s saying something.”

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