What a miserable week in a thoroughly shitty political year. And it’s only March.

The government wanted this week to be all about Bill Shorten’s “character”. As the Coalition’s shell-shocked troops returned to Canberra to contemplate how badly a “good” (i.e. not marked by any debacles) start to the year had been fried in the nuclear explosion of Barnaby Joyce’s ego, the idea was to go on the offensive by focusing on Shorten. The Opposition leader “didn’t have the character to lead either at home or abroad”, Julie Bishop told the joint partyroom meeting on Tuesday. “He has no shame, no principle, no character,” Malcolm Turnbull said in Question Time that day. Peter Dutton went further a few questions later.

He has been involved in a number of affairs across his adult life. He’s broken trust with so many people across his adult life. There are many members behind him who have been doublecrossed by this Leader of the Opposition.

Dutton warmed to his theme next day. “This Leader of the Opposition fails the character test on a number of fronts,” he told parliament. “People smugglers recognise in this Leader of the Opposition an inherent weakness in his character, which is now known not only to those behind him but also to the Australian people.”

Outside parliament, Dutton elaborated. “We’ve sat here taking a morals lecture from Bill Shorten in relation to Barnaby Joyce over the last few weeks and people know that there’s a history of problems in Bill Shorten’s personal life, Tony Burke’s personal life. And to be lectured by the Labor Party really sticks in the craw.”

In that context, Michaelia Cash’s threat to name young women in Shorten’s office about whom there were “rumours” looks less like a brain snap than Cash’s typically cack-handed implementation of the government’s political tactics. Well, cack-handed, cack-legged, cack-limbed. And a giant pile of cack for the government. By the end of the week, Chuckles was in witness protection from the media, with that whiteboard being deployed, to national mockery. 

Take a tip from the Keating years, folks — stay away from whiteboards.

Malcolm Turnbull helpfully doubled down by claiming Cash had withdrawn her comments unreservedly, when she’d done nothing of the sort, forcing Cash to then have to withdraw them unreservedly. And he said Cash was a victim of Doug Cameron’s bullying. Cameron is a canny operator and true believer, but bullying? The only time he gets aggro and that Glaswegian burr turns threatening is if you spill his tea.

Cash thought Cameron had been alluding to rumours about a member of her staff, when he was simply continuing to explore the AWU raid tip-off scandal, which at the same time as Cash was having her brain snap was metastasising, with claims Michael Keenan’s office was involved in tipping the media off as well. 

Indeed, Labor has almost religiously avoided going near the private lives of Barnaby Joyce, Vikki Campion or any other ministers and staff. Labor knows perfectly well there are no winners from a sleaze war.

It’s strange tactics, then, for Dutton to justify attacking Shorten personally — complete with snide references to “a number of affairs across his adult life” — because “we’ve sat here taking a morals lecture from Bill Shorten.” There’s been no such lecture, except from some of Joyce’s own colleagues. The message from the Coalition to Labor is “we know you didn’t go after Joyce’s personal life, but we’re going to go after yours.” Maybe great minds within the government think that they have no way out of the mess they’re in, so they may as well pull Labor into the swamp as well.

But as the Cash incident demonstrates, there’s now a problem for female staffers across parliament. Courtesy of the Prime Minister having made a staff member’s relationship with a frontbencher a matter of public interest, any female staff member who moves offices faces the potential for rumours of an affair with the boss. Parliament House is always awash with rumours about who’s sleeping with whom, most of them rubbish. That sort of garbage now takes on the potential to damage careers even more than it already does. And, of course, it’s always women who suffer the damage, not men.

Until all of us are grown up enough to see a professionally successful woman and not wonder whom she slept with to get her job, Parliament House will remain a toxic workplace. This week seems to have guaranteed that.

It’s time to book your next dose of Crikey.

Through the week, news comes at you fast. Every day there’s a new disaster, depressing numbers or a scandal to doom-scroll to. It’s exhausting, and not good for your health.

Book your next dose of Crikey to get on top of it all. Subscribe now and get your first 12 weeks for $12. And you’ll help us too, because every dollar we get helps us dig even deeper.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.