Australian Outlook

In this section

Inside the Toxic Sexist Culture of Australia’s Political Bubble

20 Nov 2020
By Dr Blair Williams

Australia has yet again made international headlines for the toxic sexist culture of its federal parliament. The recent ABC Four Corners episode, Inside The Canberra Bubble, exposed a history of sexism and inappropriate behaviour by senior members of the coalition government.

Just days after the episode aired, Prime Minister Scott Morrison cut off female colleague Anne Ruston before she had a chance to respond to a question about what it’s like to be a woman in Parliament, ranting about the particular terminology used by the journalist. This incident, and the broader culture of sexism that it reflects, won’t significantly impact Australia’s international standing – especially in comparison to, say, its inaction on climate change and treatment of refugees – but they do conform to a historical trend of misogyny in Australian politics and reinforce blokey political stereotypes.

Bonk bans and manterruptions

The Inside The Canberra Bubble investigation uncovered just how deep-seated this culture is in Australian Parliament. Two senior Liberal cabinet ministers, Attorney General Christian Porter and Infrastructure Minister Alan Tudge, have been accused of sexual misconduct. Both men wielded their power and influence for personal benefit, belittling and degrading women colleagues and initiating affairs with their staffers. Whistleblower Rachelle Miller, a former Liberal staffer who worked for Tudge from 2010-2018, has spoken publicly of their affair and the extent of his degrading behaviour. Miller recalls that Tudge often belittled and demeaned her at work, leaving her in tears, and that his behaviour made her “constantly afraid of losing [her] job.” While the affair was seen as mutual, its lingering impact raises questions about whether such intimate relationships between a boss and employee can ever truly be consensual considering their significant imbalance of power.

These doubts have resurfaced with the revelation that then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned Porter about his own inappropriate behaviour with a young staffer. The Four Corners investigation has shown that Porter’s sexist conduct was part of a history of misogynistic behaviour dating back to his private school days. Barrister Kathleen Foley, who has known Porter for more than 20 years, called his behaviour “deeply sexist and actually misogynist,” consistently sidelining and undermining women colleagues, scrutinising their appearance, and even making sexualised comments about former students. This kind of behaviour has only continued in Canberra.

In fact, as the ABC investigation revealed, Turnbull’s 2018 so-called “bonk ban” – prohibiting ministers from engaging in sexual relationships with staffers – was formulated with Porter and Tudge in mind, as well as then-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who made headlines when his affair and child with a former media adviser was exposed. Yet neither Porter, Tudge, nor Joyce have experienced any real consequences for abusing their power. Morrison won’t take further action on the matter as the breaches of ministerial code of conduct did not happen on his watch.

On the other hand, the careers of those women who were either involved or provided statements to Four Corners have already been damaged. Miller was made redundant after rumours began circulating about her affair with Tudge, and there are now fears she might also lose her new job after her media appearance. Days after the episode aired, Foley lost her bid for re-election to the Victorian Bar Council.

Morrison’s recent behaviour only reaffirms where his allegiances lie. Rather than support Ruston or even give her the podium, he was more concerned with the continued use of the term “bonk ban,” arguing that it “dismisses the seriousness” of an issue he allegedly takes “very seriously.” Despite the apparent sincerity, his egregious “manterruption” quickly made international headlines.

History of sexism in Australian politics

There is a history of such behaviour in Australian politics, especially among the men of the coalition. It remained hidden for decades, until the curtain was slowly pulled aside by women politicians revealing the sexist culture they’ve had to endure. In 2018, many of these women in the Liberal party broke rank to publicly call out this toxic culture. Julia Banks notably left to join the crossbench, blaming the “scourge of cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation” which “women have suffered in silence for too long.” These allegations were confirmed by fellow Liberals, such as then-Deputy Leader Julie Bishop and then-Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer, demonstrating that the Liberal “woman problem” was only getting worse.

Yet this culture permeates all of Parliament, not just the coalition. Only months prior to Banks’ public condemnation, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused, and successfully sued, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm for “slut shaming” her in the Senate. In a debate of a bill regarding pepper spray and tasers for women’s self-defence, Hanson-Young argued that women would not need these protection devices if men didn’t rape them, to which Leyonhjelm responded by telling her to “stop shagging men.” Hanson-Young has since written about the toxic workplace environment for women in Parliament in En Garde , noting the constant barrage of “sexist slurs and innuendo.”

The most notorious case of sexism in Australian politics is undoubtedly the treatment that Australia’s first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard, received from both sides of the political spectrum and the media. Throughout her prime ministerial term, Gillard faced accusations of violent disloyalty to her predecessor Kevin Rudd, was regularly referred to as “JuLiar” by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and the press, and was demonised for being unmarried and childfree. At a Liberal National Party fundraiser, a dish on the menu was described as “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.” In 2012, when Abbott used a comment made by shock jock Alan Jones that Gillard’s father “died of shame” to criticise the current government, Gillard famously unleashed her anger at the sexist culture she had had to endure for years with her impromptu “Misogyny Speech.” This speech instantly made global headlines and resonated with women around the world, bringing to light that which many others had suffered alone in the hyper-masculine “boys club” of politics.

Reinforcing blokey political culture

Government has long been a space made for and by men, privileging masculinity while marginalising everyone else. As a result, politicians are expected to display stereotypically masculine behavioural traits, such as assertiveness, strength, toughness, ambition, even aggression, while traits considered feminine are derided or deemed weak. Such culture encourages sexist attitudes and behaviour and effectively excludes women from occupying the political space in the same way that men do. These recent allegations only serve to further remind women of their place and their precarious existence in government, while reassuring men that they can act with impunity.

They have also thrust Australia’s sexist political culture, yet again, into the international spotlight. The New York Times quickly covered these new examples of sexism, describing Australia as “a step or 10 behind…many of its developed peers,” where politicians are willing “to let government institutions be run like gentleman’s clubs of yesteryear.” There was similar coverage by BBC News, Huffington Post UK, and The Independent. It’s not the first time Australia’s sexist political culture has made international headlines. The New York Times and BBC News ran multiple stories covering the Australian Parliament’s 2018 “#MeToo moment” and the 2019 federal election, further adding to the negative perception of Australia as a sexist country.

It’s important to note that sexism is present to some degree in virtually all governments, so the big news in Australia is not the exception, but really more of the same. While this adds to Australia’s international image as a blokey nation of larrikins, there are also chances for greater accountability in the future. The fact that the “Canberra Bubble” has been catapulted into the national conversation by this Four Corners special – despite the government’s efforts to silence it – indicates that there is potential for change. However, any meaningful change must involve real action to make Parliament a more inclusive and professional space for all.

Blair Williams is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University, researching the gendered media coverage of women in politics. She has published her research in Politics & Gender, Feminist Media Studies, Parliamentary Affairs and the Australian Journal of Political Science.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.