While Australian federal politics remains discombobulated about alleged bullying in the parliamentary Liberal party, across the Ditch there’s been an occurrence of which Australian politics and media should take note.
On Thursday, suspended customs minister Meka Whaitiri was sacked after PM Jacinda Ardern received an official report into an incident in which Whaitiri’s female press secretary complained the then minister physically assaulted her. This was on top of Whaitiri’s notoriously revolving door Beehive office since the New Zealand Labour government was elected a year ago: it appears it was a toxic workplace and Whaitiri a toxic boss. Beyond her office, she isn’t much loved by her fellow Labour MPs who long have resented her throwing her weight around. No tears have been shed over her political demise.
But the key point is that Whaitiri is a woman, and a Maori woman at that. She is on the Left, not the Right. She may, therefore, tick off three equal opportunity boxes, but that hasn’t necessarily made Whaitiri a nice human being or stopped her from being called to account.
In Canberra, however, female Liberal MPs including Julia Banks and Lucy Gichuhi have been swift to blame unnamed male colleagues for bullying them. While Labor and the chattering classes eagerly have made it a gender issue to keep the Morrison government off-balance, Whaiteri’s fall is a reminder that bullying in politics and workplaces in general, is not gender-specific. Political bullying, whether of MPs or staff, is about power. Those who have it force their will on those who don’t: MPs and staff who are subordinate to then, who are lower on the pecking order to them, or who are factionally different to them.
Party politics is a brutal game. It cannot, will not be ‘feminised’ as long as its raison d’etre is winning and retaining power. If those calling out Liberal parliamentary bullying are on the level, they must acknowledge that women are equally as capable of bullying, harassment and power abuse as men. And as more and more women reach the highest rungs of the political ladder, on all sides of politics, female political bullies sadly will become common. Imposing MP selection quotas will not prevent bad behaviour.
All political bullying is wrong. And if that bullying is done by a woman, she must not be allowed to hide behind her own skirts, and the sisterhood must call her out and not make excuses for her behaviour. They certainly shouldn’t claim that, as in the case of the outgoing Labor MP Emma Husar, even questioning her conduct based on complaints is sexist or an attack on women generally. A bullying woman must be made as fully accountable for her misconduct as a bullying man.
In New Zealand, Meka Whaitiri has paid the appropriate price for her bullying. Hers is a salutary lesson for Australian politics too.
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