Parliament’s ‘devastating’ week of grubby slurs, abuse and silence

Parliament House hosted unedifying scenes this week.

Parliament House hosted unedifying scenes this week.

Health Minister Greg Hunt’s valedictory statement, where he joked about his troubles donning a face mask and drew tears as he spoke of his family, was a rare lighter point in another bruising, demoralising week in federal Parliament House.

In a fortnight where the focus should have been on improving behaviour in politics, with sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ landmark Set The Standard report, numerous MPs simply disgraced themselves and the parliament with a spiralling series of outrageous outbursts unbefitting of their privileged positions.

“It comes down to a lack of respect that we have for each other,” Senator Jacqui Lambie claimed, at the end of a fortnight where she copped torrents of online abuse, her phone number was shared by a political opponent, and was allegedly subjected to “growling” by another.

Alan Tudge. Photo: AAP

Watching Mr Hunt’s speech from behind a face mask at the far end of the chamber was Christian Porter, whose own resignation came via Facebook just 24 hours earlier. He will likely leave politics without ever disclosing which wealthy donors contributed to the so-called “blind trust” he used to pay legal bills for his aborted defamation case against the ABC. Once tipped for the prime minister’s chair, he never recovered politically from shocking alleged rape claims that can never be tested, but which he vehemently denies.

Absent from the chamber was Alan Tudge, the education minister whose fate hangs in limbo following further explosive claims of “abuse” and “harassment” from former staffer Rachelle Miller. An hour before Mr Hunt’s speech, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Mr Tudge – who denies the claims – would stand aside, pending an investigation.

It was swift and decisive action from a PM who has been routinely criticised all year for being neither swift nor decisive in responding to the growing list of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment scandals in parliament. After fumbling early responses to the Brittany Higgins scandal and other cascading revelations of sexual outrages inside parliament, sparking voter shock and disgust, this was a week where Mr Morrison couldn’t wriggle away with a wet lettuce response.

For one, the Jenkins’ report – revealing 40 per cent of women in parliamentary workplaces, and two-thirds of female politicians, had been sexually harassed – brought the light back to the uncomfortable truth that Parliament House and federal politics are not always safe places for women, and are not doing enough to hold men to account.

For another, even before the Jenkins’ report, this fortnight had been a particularly grubby one – even for this parliament, which seems to regularly plumb new depths of dirtiness.

Ms Miller’s emotional statement, coming at the end of a long fortnight, left many in staffer and press gallery circles visibly affected.

Senator Lambie was attacked and trolled for opposing a One Nation bill against vaccine mandates. Her phone number was later shared online by Senator Malcolm Roberts, prompting more abuse.

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Senator Lambie called out “a lack of respect”. Photo: AAP

Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer claimed she was ambushed into a meeting with Mr Morrison, even after she asked for time to gather emotions, when she crossed the floor to support an integrity commission, as the government still declines to introduce its own.

Government backbencher George Christensen appeared to compare vaccine mandates to the murderous dictatorial regimes of Hitler and Pol Pot, then denied he ever did.

Hours after the Jenkins report’s release, Liberal MP David Van was accused of making “dog noises” at Senator Lambie, which he later denied. The next day, Greens senator Lidia Thorpe drew outrage after she was accused by Liberal senator Hollie Hughes of making a comment about keeping her “legs shut”.

Liberal MPs described it as “slut-shaming”, while Senator Hughes interpreted it as a comment about her autistic son. Senator Thorpe apologised but denied the comment was aimed at Senator Hughes’ family.

Senators Thorpe and Hughes. Photo: AAP

Meanwhile, as fury rained down around them, Labor didn’t say much in the chamber on the issues or the report.

Shadow minister for women Tanya Plibersek spoke strongly on the report’s findings, saying she was “disappointed” but not “surprised”.

But over three question time sessions in the House of Representatives, from the report’s release on Tuesday to Thursday, the Opposition asked one solitary question on the report. Anthony Albanese called the findings “shocking” but pitched the equivalent of a Dorothy Dixer softball by asking whether the PM agreed Parliament House should be “safer and more respectful”.

On Thursday, Ms Miller had warned the Opposition “stayed quiet because they have just as many skeletons”.

“The two major parties will work together when it comes to protecting each other,” she said.

That was just hours before a Labor MP joked “get a room” – loud and clear enough to hear in the public galleries – after Mr Hunt and Liberal MP Gladys Liu praised each other in question time.

The parliamentary jibes, the schoolyard-style jokes, the sniggering, are not trivial matters. Remember that a politician in federal parliament is paid more than $211,000 as a starting salary, and needs no qualification beyond winning a popularity contest.

Both major parties have committed to considering the recommendations of the Jenkins’ review, but stopped short of quickly endorsing them all in full. That’s against the calls of Ms Miller, Brittany Higgins, and other survivors of sexual assault and harassment in federal politics.

But despite Ms Jenkins’ number one recommendation being that “party leaders” make a public statement of acknowledgement in parliament, we didn’t hear much from the (male) party leaders of the Liberals, Nationals, Labor or Greens this week.

Mr Morrison gave two press conferences this week; one to detail the Jenkins’ report on Tuesday, another to talk about cybersafety on Wednesday, where he was not asked any questions directly on the Jenkins’ report.

Mr Albanese gave zero press conferences during the sitting week to Thursday and has not taken any journalists’ questions on the report. Press gallery journalists are asking (increasingly loudly) why he rarely gives Canberra press conferences during sitting weeks.

Greens leader Adam Bandt gave a press conference on Tuesday, joined by deputy leader Larissa Waters who called for the recommendations to be implemented in full.

According to transcripts on his website, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce didn’t speak to the report at all.

“Once upon a time when I’d come up here, I was really proud to stand outside and know I was a senator,” Ms Lambie said on Thursday.

“I don’t feel that anymore, not coming in here. For me, that’s quite devastating. That’s not helping the nation. That’s not leading by example.”

Ms Jenkins’ report was called Set The Standard. There’s more than a few politicians who spent this week doing anything but.

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