Barnaby Joyce, it seems, may be about to escape lasting consequences in relation to his alleged actions in 2016 toward Catherine Marriott, who has accused him of sexual harassment. He is widely expected to replace Michael McCormack as Nationals leader, even if that does not occur this week, despite the failure of the Nationals Party administration to resolve Marriott’s complaint in the face of Joyce’s vigorous denial of the allegations. While most media coverage of the Nationals’ leadership issue noted Joyce had been the subject of a complaint, few journalists seemed to think the unresolved status of the complaint (the party was unable to make a determination after an eight-month investigation) was in any way an impediment to his return to the deputy prime ministership.
If that occurs, the only person who will have suffered consequences is Marriott, who was outed by the Nationals despite her desire for privacy, quite apart from her personal distress that she says was caused by Joyce’s alleged actions. The outing of Marriott was a perfect demonstration of the weird logic of the claim that women invent allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men for their own benefit; rarely is the process of raising allegations anything other than deeply hurtful to women.
Luke Foley’s case is quite different. The claim that the New South Wales Opposition Leader engaged in sexual harassment of an ABC journalist at a Christmas function was made under parliamentary privilege by a political opponent. The journalist in question has made no complaint. Foley strongly rejects the claim and has invited his accuser to repeat the allegation outside parliamentary privilege, as well as threatening to sue The Australian if it published the allegations. As anyone who remembers the smears about Paul Keating’s personal life in the 1990s can relate, the Liberals have form in peddling sleaze.
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Where the cases do intersect, however, is that neither NSW Labor nor the Nationals are actually going to do anything. Indeed, unlike the Nationals, NSW Labor isn’t even carrying out any investigation. Such an investigation may be stymied by the unwillingness of the alleged victim of harassment to co-operate, but things haven’t been permitted to get that far. As a result, it is plausible that Luke Foley will become premier of NSW next year with an allegation of sexual harassment against him unresolved.
Foley has also responded to the allegation by suggesting he has allegations to make against four Coalition frontbenchers if the NSW government pressed the issue. Yesterday, he invited a debate on the claim about him, saying “we welcome it to talk about you and you and you and you [pointing to ministers]. Bring it on.” This appeared to pass unremarked but is astonishing: in effect, Foley has alluded to some form of misconduct — we don’t know what, or whether it relates only to sexual harassment — by ministers of the Crown, but will not raise the issues publicly unless he is attacked first. Foley might be talking about scuttlebutt and gossip, or something more serious. We don’t know.
It’s entirely possible that Foley is the victim of a smear by his opponents. It’s possible, too, that Joyce didn’t engage in any harassment. But it is no longer acceptable that they can compete for high office while the issues remain unresolved.