After the revelation of the alleged rape of a staffer in a minister’s office, and its gross and abysmal mishandling; after casually dismissed rape accusations levelled against a minister; after yet more details of a deeply toxic and misogynist workplace culture in politics; after gender issues dominating politics for the first third of the year, the verdict arrived this week: nothing has changed.
An accused sexual harasser is once again deputy prime minister. He joins an industry minister accused of rape, who discontinued his defamation suit against the media outlet that revealed the allegations, and a minister who described a woman allegedly raped in her office as “a lying cow”, along with a prime minister who lied to Parliament about the investigation into his own office’s handling of the rape allegation.
For good measure, accused sexual harasser Barnaby Joyce is on the Cabinet Taskforce on the Status of Women. At the first meeting of that taskforce in April — dominated, of course, by Scott Morrison — the prime minister said “women’s safety and security are very much, I think, the heart and soul of what the agenda for this group is about”.
Joyce denies the allegations against him. One of the women who has alleged he harassed her — the prominent and respected agriculture businesswoman Catherine Marriott — has refused to state publicly what she says Barnaby Joyce did, and instead provided a confidential letter about the alleged incident to the National Party.
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The National Party’s response to the letter was to leak her name to News Corp — which Marriott has described as “horrific” — and to conduct an investigation in which the party concluded it was “unable to make a determination” due to insufficient evidence. The report, unlike Marriott’s identity, remains confidential.
He is also the subject of another unresolved sexual harassment allegation, also denied, in relation to a complaint of an incident in 2011.
As with Christian Porter, it appears sufficient for a Coalition figure to simply deny any allegation for that allegation to be entirely dismissed, without independent inquiry. In Porter’s case, however, he has not been promoted onto a committee intended to address women’s safety and security.
Given the unresolved nature of the allegations against Joyce, and the failure to establish an independent inquiry, a threshold question is whether women participating in that committee are safe and secure themselves.
Like chief lieutenant Matt Canavan, Joyce is also a long-time and ardent opponent of abortion rights. In 2019 he conducted spam calls to NSW households misrepresenting a bill to decriminalise abortion in that state, and compared abortion to slavery.
While it’s unsurprising that the government’s pretence for addressing gender issues barely last three months, what of the media? For the most part, the unresolved sexual harassment allegations against Joyce were a footnote to his return this week. It was News Corp’s Samantha Maiden — who had broken and pursued the Brittany Higgins story — who pressed Joyce on the sexual harassment allegations at his first media conference as leader.
Joyce again dismissed the allegations as “spurious and defamatory”, though like many a politician who claims to have been defamed, Joyce has never followed through with court action against his accuser. Joyce insists he’s now a better person and that he spent three years on the backbench as a result of the allegations and “for the good of my party”.
Joyce thus portrays himself as the real victim of the incident: targeted (for at least a second time) by false accusations, defamed by a woman, taking a bullet for his team and spending three years out of the limelight as a result, and returning as a better person. It dovetails nicely with the Nationals’ embrace of grievance politics and their ongoing efforts to coopt right-wing victimhood as a political fuel.
For many in the media, this self-serving narrative of victimhood and personal redemption appears sufficient, despite what we’ve learnt about how toxic the political environment is for women. We’re back to the reporting of Joyce’s purported genius as a “retail politician”, the delighted coverage of his unique communication style, the media excitement of the “wild ride” he offers compared to the colourless Michael McCormack.
Much more interesting is the tale of how disruptive Joyce will be compared to the idea of justice for women.
If it was unlikely the government was going to change on gender issues, perhaps it was equally unlikely much of the media ever would either.