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This is not a “sex scandal”

Despite claims from certain sections of the media, last night’s Four Corners report on the toxic culture of the Canberra bubble’s is not a “sex scandal”.

Labelling it as such erases the report’s disturbing revelations and frames them as a grubby little story about drunken affairs and scorned women.

This is not a sex scandal. It is about power and about how some of the people with responsibility for governing Australia view half the citizens of this country.

The government is made up of people, mostly privileged white men. It is their job to determine policies, bring forward legislation, set taxes and disperse them for the public good.

If the Four Corners report is accurate, too many people in the government are participating in or colluding with a poisonously sexist boys’ club that views women as little more than sexual rewards that are the entitlement of powerful men.

This is revolting enough on its own but it goes beyond personal revulsion when such attitudes are then reflected in the policies of government. As I wrote last month, sexist attitudes in government translate to sexist policies, including on the intertwined issues of women’s unpaid work, the persistent 40 percent gender pay gap, men’s violence against women and the epidemic of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

Minutes after the Four Corners report, Paul Kelly, Editor-at-large of The Australian, was on QandA defending Christian Porter as a man who has “served with distinction”.

That may be true. Good men can get drunk, have affairs and make mistakes. Good people are susceptible to moments of selfishness or unkindness. Similarly, misogynistic men can be good lawyers. Indeed, there may be times where misogyny is an asset in the legal profession.

Such men can even be perceived as effective MPs. But that’s not relevant to this story because this is not only or chiefly about individuals. It’s about a group of mostly men making decisions about the entire country based on perceptions of women as the dispensers of food, childcare and sex.

The group is the problem and the individuals are relevant only in so far as their actions and choices reflect the collective view.

A recent report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found almost 40 percent of working women had experienced sexual harassment at work in the five years before 2018. The prevalence appears to have increased since the HRC has been collecting data on this issue in 2003 and research suggests that even this figure is an under estimate of the extent of the problem.

Most of the people perpetrating the harassment were men over 40. Sexual harassment is mostly likely to occur in hierarchical, male-dominated industries where men are over-represented in positions of power and previous incidents of sexual harassment are not uncommon. This alone is enough to suggest Canberra, and particularly the Liberal party, is at high risk.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already said, in response to questions at an allegedly unrelated press conference, that he takes these issues very seriously. Amid denials of anything untoward happening on his watch and the predictable what-about-the-Labor-party obfuscations, he made touching statements about human frailty and the tragedy of broken families. The larger and far more important questions about sexist culture embedded in his government was, unsurprisingly, ignored. Perhaps he didn’t even understand the question.

Minister Alan Tudge has already expressed his regret for hurt caused to his family and the woman with whom he had an affair. Attorney General Christian Porter has fired off denials and threats to sue.

At worst Tudge and Porter might be sent off to cool their heels in the naughty corner of the back benches for a few months. But the underlying issue will be ignored and the two ministers at the centre of the “sex scandal” are unlikely to face the long-term career damage experienced by the women involved. It’s also too early to say whether there will be any real change to the Liberal party culture. Certainly, it would be a monumental task.

Real change would require disembowelling the selection process (laughably described as a “merit” system) that puts the roughly ten percent of privileged white men in Australia into more than seventy percent of power positions in our government, business, sports, arts and media.

Real change would mean the framework designed to deal with sexual harassment would not be a resource for victims rather than, as UTS Associate Professor Karen O'Connell described it, “a system for filtering out and silencing complaints”.

Real change would not have a Prime Minister promoting a man to Attorney General two weeks after chastising him for allegations of “inappropriate” behaviour with a young staffer in a bar.

Turnbull claimed on QandA last night that he didn’t know the full story of Porter’s alleged behaviour – allegations Porter has denied.

If Four Corner’s claims about decades of poor behaviour by Porter are accurate, either no one thought it necessary to discuss them with the then Prime Minister, or they did discuss them and it wasn’t enough to prevent him being promoted to the most senior position in our legal system. Either way, it’s emblematic of the normalisation of misogyny in Federal politics. And that’s a far bigger story than any so called sex scandal.

Jane Gilmore was the founding editor of The King’s Tribune. She is now a freelance journalist and author, with a particular interest in feminism, media and data journalism and has written for The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Daily Telegraph, The Saturday Paper and Meanjin, among many others. Jane has a Master of Journalism from the University of Melbourne, and her book FixedIt: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media was published by Penguin Random House in 2019.

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