Factions are built and maintained around loyalty, partly based on relationships and partly on transactional politics, nurtured over the course of years. Factional interdependencies can discourage reporting bad behaviour, as one woman’s sex pest is another man’s numbers man.
Now suddenly the gender composition of these organised factions – usually weighted towards men – needs to change quickly to catch up to community expectations. The Labor Party has a target for equal representation by women in its ranks by 2025; the Liberal Party has an understanding that it needs to recruit more female candidates, soon. This requires that men make room for women; that they share the limited spoils of power with them.
Former Labor MP Emma Husar insists that “when you’re in a faction like mine”– by which she means the NSW Right – “the power is held by the boys”. She tells of the resentment in the faction against women who had to be given plum positions “because they have the necessary bodily appendages”.
Husar penned an open letter to Opposition Leader Albanese this week full of her ongoing pain over the way she feels she was treated by the Labor factions. In 2016, Husar was drafted to run in the federal electorate of Lindsay and succeeded in unseating Liberal incumbent Fiona Scott. But she claims careerists in her faction were never happy about the seat being occupied by an outsider and began undermining her internally. The tension came to a head when she sacked a staffer who was a well-connected member of the faction. Shortly after that, Buzzfeed reported that NSW Labor had commissioned a barrister to investigate accusations of bullying and sexual harassment against her. Husar claims there were links between the barrister and the father of the sacked staffer, leading her to believe it could never be an independent investigation. According to that telling, the sexualised accusations against Husar, which she has referred to as slut-shaming, were not about sex but about power.
Doubts have been cast over Husar’s account of events. Also disputed is the account of former Liberal MP Julia Banks, who was persuaded to run for the Liberal Party in 2016 and quit claiming she was bullied by the factions at the time of the leadership spill which installed Scott Morrison.
In some ways both these cases may come down to a misunderstanding as to how the system works. As outsiders, both women were parachuted into political office. Without foundations in the factions they had position but a limited amount of actual power. They felt bullied by the expectation that they would do the bidding of the factional warlords. This treatment was coincidental to their gender. It was not about biological sex, but about power.
This at least in part explains why the government is unsure of what to do about the swelling numbers of complaints emerging in the parliamentary workplace. Many are undoubtedly true, and the result of a culture of entitlement and anger at the incursion of women into positions men wish for themselves. But politics is also full of people with ulterior motives jostling among themselves for power. As Husar says happened in her case, accusations of sexual harassment can be wielded against an enemy. For now the claims we are aware of are being made by women, but it is only a matter of time before men start reporting too.
Britain, faced with a similar problem, has introduced the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme to deal with issues eerily familiar in Australia. It will discourage vexatious claimants by thoroughly investigating each incident. It is too early to tell whether the British model works well, but already we know that an independent body is the only solution here too. Because sex is about more than sex in the corridors of power.
Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director strategy and policy at strategic communications firm Agenda C. She has in the past done work for the Australian Liberal Party.
Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director strategy and policy at strategic communications firm Agenda C.