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The Coalition goes existential

Peter Brent writes in Inside Story (17.2.18) that, in the wake of revelations of Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce’s extramarital affair with an office staffer, Malcolm Turnbull’s handling of events raises questions about the strange nature of the federal Liberal-National coalition.

‘On Friday, Barnaby Joyce put the gloves back on. After long days of morose self-flagellation, the deputy prime minister sprang up and about, doing what he does best: lashing opponents with those considerable verbal skills. Only this time the attack was directed at his senior partner and prime minister. Still, it must have felt good to be back on the front foot, seizing the day, marshalling the troops.

‘Let’s hope Barnaby squeezed every bit of enjoyment out of the experience, because he is finished as Nationals leader. Joyce can’t survive this — he will be gone long before the next election — and the chief question is: when he falls off the cliff, will he drag Malcolm Turnbull with him? Whether Joyce fully knew how much damage he inflicted to Turnbull at his press conference — behatted, in the shade, surely self-parodying even to a rusted-on Nationals supporter — or whether he truly hopes that if he hangs on long enough the media will move to something else, is unclear. Probably a bit of both.

‘Media frenzies do subside, caravans move on, our journalists quickly shift to the next obsession, but that can’t happen in this case. Those things that should have claimed his scalp — the creation of jobs in ministerial offices for his girlfriend, accepting (and perhaps seeking, although he denied this in parliament) free rent from a local businessman, and questionable travel claims — could have by themselves blown over. But what he can’t survive is the less important, salacious stuff: the marriage breakup and its surrounding soap opera, because there will always be the new partnership and baby to remind us.

‘We do not know what has been said this week behind closed doors, but Turnbull was presumably frustrated by Joyce’s unwillingness to budge. The prime minister’s Thursday press conference also scores generously in the wackiness stakes: in its attack on his deputy, and the very unwise addition to ministerial code of conduct, the ban on sex between ministers and their own staff.’

Yes, the culture in Parliament House is appalling. But there are systemic problems that also need urgent reform

Anne Tiernan writes in The Conversation (24.2.21) about recent revelations of sexual abuse and harrassment of political staffers, arguing that it is vital that the structural issues around ministerial staff and accountability be properly addressed.

‘Since news broke last week of Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape in a ministerial office in 2019, three other women have come forward, alleging sexual assault by the same Morrison government ministerial staffer. Higgins is expected to make a formal complaint to police this week.

‘Each allegation sheds light on a system that privileges political considerations above everything, and enables and emboldens systematic and highly gendered abuses of power.

‘By Friday, four separate inquiries had been launched. … Two of these reviews seem designed to address the Coalition’s lingering “woman problem”. The other two focus on the toxic workplace culture of Parliament House.

‘While it is understandable in the context of these deeply disturbing allegations, the focus on toxic workplace culture risks obscuring more fundamental, structural issues at play. That is, the the ambiguous position that ministerial staff occupy within Australia’s political system, and the recurrent controversies it produces.’

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