Gladys Berejilklian and politics, sex and power
Saturday, October 9, 2021, 10:30 pm
The New South Wales Premier’s farewell on 1st October has added to a bad look for her party on the after-hours behaviour front.
A sad aspect of Gladys Berejiklian’s political fall is that it had to be over a “head-on-the-pillow” scandal – feeding into the undeniable phenomenon that women politicians get rougher treatment over sexual matters than the men.
HEAD ON THE PILLOW
The classic “head-on-the-pillow” affair was that enjoyed by the then British War Minister, John Profumo, who at the height of the cold war shared a party girl with a bon vivant gentleman from the Soviet embassy.
In Ms Berejlikian’s case it was her former clandestine relationship with the State Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, where the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) says it is investigating whether as a Minister she facilitated certain special benefits for his electorate. There are other matters, where Mr Maguire’s business dealings have been under investigation by ICAC.
The party minders in Sydney got up an effective defence for a while, though just a smokescreen, that the school-girlish Premier was a bit of an innocent in the ways of men.
It was a way out of a sex scandal in a political environment where conservative sectors of public opinion go after unmarried women leaders who have partners; like that “bitch”, as they called her publicly, Julia Gillard, when Prime Minister on the Labor side.
But with “head-on-the-pillow” scandals, what counts is the policy influence the partner might exert, or any gain they might extract from actions of the particular office holder at work. It is as if the late Profumo had let out some state secrets about, say, policy on the Berlin Wall, which might have gone to the Russian bloke as-it-were on the other side of the bed.
Gladys Berejlikian’s explanation for resigning as NSW Premier and as an MP is that preoccupation with a drawn-out ICAC investigation would have harmed that state during the pandemic. The investigation might now go ahead without that kind of distraction. If she has transgressed, could, or should the resignation in any way get her off the hook?
IS THE COUNTRY BEING RUN BY GRUBS?
Will any of it adversely affect the prospects of Berejlikian’s political party, the Liberals, in government both in Sydney and Canberra?
It might at a cultural level if it gets jumbled-up in the minds of voters with a litany of bad-look events involving prominent figures in that party, about bad behaviour mixed in with sexism and sex. To that can be added the financial scandals – mostly pork barrelling on the way to elections. Will they come to think the country is being run by grubs?
The second most recent development in the reputations field was the resignation from the Ministry of Christian Porter, on 19 September, after disclosure that he was getting financial support in a defamation case against the ABC from a blind trust. It might be allowed but was unsustainable because of the secrecy involved. His refusal to say where the money was coming from has opened the field to speculation and fantasy. Was it the mafia? Agents of Xi Jinping in China getting around the ban on foreign contributors in such cases? Was it “venture capitalists”, Liberals who, after getting a policy onto the books to privatise the ABC, sought to hit up its litigation budget, and muddy-up its reputation a bit – all the better to one-day buy it at a knock-down price? We may never be able to know.
The actual contribution of the affair to a certain spoiling of the Liberal image was the subject matter of the ABC report in question, which cited an accusation that a current Minister had committed an act of rape during his school days, effectively ruining the victim’s life. Porter volunteered that the story, amid the circumstances given, was plainly about it himself, denied it, and sued. This was with some sense of resentment in his statements, mentions of “trial by mob”.
The affair came amid a rush of other bad-look publicity for the party and government to do with mis-treatment of women. The young Porter portrayed as a species of callow rah-rah was made into an Australian Brett Kavanaugh; the radical right-wing lawyer pushed onto the US Supreme Court by President Donald Trump, over-riding complaints not only of judicial bias, but of sexual transgressions during his preppie days in private colleges. Privilege can be thrown up easily against the Liberal Party and this was a case in point.
SHUSHING OF BRITTANY HIGGINS – GONE WRONG
A development just three days before Porter’s resignation was the long awaited charge in court against Bruce Lehrmann, accused of the rape of Brittany Higgins on a couch in the office of the Defence Minister in March 2019. Both were members of Ministerial staff, Liberal. It would keep the scandal going, reviving impressions of some kind of partisan rabble operating behind the scenes in government
Ms Higgins had made public statements about a late-night drinking session that ended up back at the office and herself being found unclothed by security staff in the morning. Other women from government ranks recounted tales about her abuser – not named at the time. Mr Lehrmann then came to be fairly easily identified in social media. The defence lawyers might be studying whether their client is actually the man those additional women were thinking of, and if he has achieved such notoriety that he cannot get a fair trial.
Back at the cultural level, and what voters will make of the affair, this might now be feeding into some ire on two fronts: about yet another story on grubby antics coming out of the Liberal Party, and about the goings-on of spin-doctors, the massaging of public opinion, political showmanship, as a hallmark of the government – these days also indelible in the personal reputation of Scott Morrison, the Liberals’ Prime Minister.
“SCOTTY FROM MARKETING”
The dramatis personae of the affair are from the stable of ambitious young folks committed to the “politics industry”, most highly invested in the game, revelling in “the life”, keen on presenting in public, excited to be in a good job at the centre of things — already skilled in many of the tricks.
Ms Higgins has shown courage and a hard head, providing the public a glimpse of a rough-house scene in Canberra, and raising questions about the species of people who may be handling the business of government.
She has demonstrated a talent for the game worthy of “Scotty from marketing” himself, accusing him personally of “briefing against” her loved ones; a potent accusation in what was a climate of protest against Morrison over the handling of the issue of abuse. Sensationally enough this achieved a one-to-meeting for her with the Prime Minister, reportedly “honest and frank”, at the end of April this year.
As for the “loved ones”, the introduction to the general public of Brittany Higgins’s partner, David Sharaz, was deftly controlled by the couple through social media channels. The expression “briefing against” had been a clue that this loved one would be from among the Ministerial staff, lobbyists, the media pack or thereabouts, and it transpired Mr Sharaz was indeed no incidental stranger to the game, as a broadcast journalist with political connections, including stints with Sky News and SBS, and work as a Ministerial media advisor last year.
Their small campaign had hallmarks of media management lessons well absorbed:
Lesson #1. Give attention to presentation and if possible you be the one controlling how the story comes out.
Lesson #2. Content-wise, come what may ensure your story is told – unless you’re in crisis management and decide to run dead.
Lesson #3. Attack the attacker. If a reasoned response is not getting heard or featured, resort to this, to diminish what the attacker says (and often their will to say it). An angle on that in the Higgins case was the response to criticism as “victim blaming” – an accurate enough response in most instances, as with the commercial radio man talking about a “silly little girl .. who got drunk.”
Some of the lines of debate about this affair as it slowly made its way to the courts: Why in the “Ministerial culture” was there such preference given, and pressure applied to keep it quiet? Why were the police not called on to investigate sooner? By extension, how can police be better resourced and prepared to handle sexual assault cases?
To digress, it calls to mind a report published some time ago by a British journalist on being attacked and raped at night in a London street. Before mobile phones, she got home to telephone and was impressed by the response of the Metropolitan Police. They made sure a female officer attended; while they were asking questions an officer in the hallway directed a search of the area using a description she gave; they collected her clothes and took her to a clinic for swabs, tests and any counselling if sought. Whether they found and convicted an offender, the process in any event appeared to have been properly handled to a good degree, maybe pointing out foundations for education and support services.
TRASHING THE LIBERAL LOOK
As to the trashing of the reputation of the Liberal government by members in its own ranks, certain others have been adding grist to the mill.
The National Party coalition partners have lent a hand, restoring Barnaby Joyce to party leadership in June, making him Deputy Prime Minister of the country. No consideration was paid to reputation damage over the pregnant press secretary or claims of sexual harassment that saw the man resign in February 2018 . As it turned out they just sin-binned him for a while and you can take it or leave it.
Add in too the case of Andrew Laming the Liberal Member for Bowman, a man with a hapless way of getting into hot water in the public media over accusations of “inappropriate” ways with women then getting out of it. Blamed and blameless, his decision in March to leave parliament at the next election, in the look of things was another black mark on his party.
Not forgetting Craig Kelly, federal Member for Hughes who resigned from the Liberal Party last February. His office manager Frank Zumbo has been charged over historical sexual offences against young women, following complaints about the work culture in the electorate office. Kelly himself has moved to the right-wing fringe, getting backlash over sending out unsolicited political texts paid for by the billionaire Clive Palmer.
In case the mud being flung on itself by the Liberal Party is ascribed to “Canberra culture” generally, “politicians”, or the power game, the Opposition has taken up an option to sit-out the whole furore.
It isn’t them, and they don’t want misdemeanours raised up from the party tradition, of which there would be several over time. Some Liberals and others have tried airing a few cases saying it’s “them too” but no mud has been sticky enough to stick.
One case worth recounting from the old days concerns Gough Whitlam’s trip to China in 1971, upstaging the government of the day. Party and union members on the trip were warned off trying for sex. As explained to them: even though they were, after all on a trip away from home, the Chinese comrades had been going through a puritanical stage and Gough as leader did not want to risk any incidents that might affect their good will.
Things are different in 2021 due to something important in Labor business called the numbers. Even the slowest Labor Party faction hack must know two main things: how to do as you are told and how to count up to about 150. In parliament and the parliamentary offices the Labor Party is getting close to 50-50 women and men. That fact, by the simplest of logic, vastly reduces any likelihood of Labor taking any lead in the sexism stakes – no match for the lopsided Liberals, still more loaded up with blokes.
While the tarnishing goes on and on, the government response to it has continued unruffled, not to say arrogant, and they might have a strong point. In today’s public life, hardly jammed with rectitude, does a government need to care what people might think about these matters of probity and behaviour? What matters on election day is how many people actually care.
Also published at independentaustralia.net.au