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Weaponising Rumour: Australia’s New Political Sensitivity

The hide of Australia’s political classes has been worn. Some members, admittedly, never had one. With tiptoeing around language ravaging, and in some cases savaging discussion, pondering policy has become nigh impossible. What matters after the Barnaby Joyce affair is rumour and private speculation.

First came the threatening malice associated with Jobs and Innovations minister Michaelia Cash. Having been pressed by Labor Senator Doug Cameron in a Senate Estimates hearing about her newly hired chief of staff, including relevant employment record, Cash went volcanic. The minister, wrote Jenna Price with tart disgruntlement, “is what you get when you hire on merit. Or at least the Liberal Party’s version of merit.”

Having touched upon “staff matters” – a self-designated sacred zone – Cash warned Cameron to be “very, very careful” as she was “happy to sit here and name every young woman in Mr Shorten’s office over which rumours in this place abound.”

This gave an odd twist to proceedings: the former minister for women had effectively made women potential dynamite in an unsubstantiated claim of impropriety, sexual or otherwise. It would be for “Mr Shorten to come out and deny any of the rumours that have been circulating in this building now for many, many years.”

After the hearing, Labor Senator Penny Wong weighed in, demanding Cash withdraw the “outrageous slurs… impugning the staff working for the Leader of the Opposition”. This Cash did, “if anyone had been offended by them” and duly lodged a complaint about media filming her whiteboard shelter as she entered another estimates committee hearing.

Deputy Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek suggested that Cash had undermined “the professionalism of the many competent, intelligent, hardworking young women who work on all sides of politics.”

The stir duly became a whirlpool, sucking in all its adherents. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull explained to members in the House of Representatives how Senator Cash had been “bullied and provoked by [Labor] senator [Doug] Cameron … who was making insinuations about staff.”

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, never considered a merry friend of women, cared to angle it differently from his successor, telling Sydney radio 2GB that the minister had suffered a “brain snap”. “There’s been far too much cheap smear and it’s time it ends … it must end.”

In this age of hashtag outrage and social media clicktivism, a paradox has emerged. Never have people been more engaged in snark and venality online while upholding a fictional standard of purity in political debate.

A blurring has now taken place, to the point where suspicions abound, and everything is fair game. “Tabloid culture, emboldened by the looseness of social media,” claims Jacqueline Maley of the Sydney Morning Herald, “has merged with the openness encouraged by the #metoo movements to create a new atmosphere where previously unsayable things are being said.”

As if to prove the point, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton told his customary reactionary refuge, 2GB radio, that “we’ve sat here taking a morals lecture from Bill Shorten in relation to Barnaby Joyce over the last few weeks and people know that there’s a history of problems in Bill Shorten’s personal life, Tony Burke’s personal life.” A view charmingly free of any policy critique.

Soon afterwards, a similar incident unfolded in another estimates hearing. Veteran Labor Senator Kim Carr, whose length of time in the chamber has essentially imprinted him into Canberra’s furniture, felt so comfortable as to call his opposite number, a young Senator James Paterson, a “member of the Hitler Youth”. Paterson expressed outrage; Carr claimed he was being facetious. Withdrawals duly followed.

“Jeez,” went Jane Norman, “Senate Estimates is getting Feral. Wednesday: Michaelia Cash threatens to reveal unverified rumours about female staff in Bill Shorten’s office. Thursday: Kim Carr suggests James Paterson would’ve been part of the Hitler Youth. This is #auspol.”

Norman, in turn, received a social media rebuke tantamount to a cold shower. The journalist had missed the beat, ignored the register. “Do you understand the word ‘Satire’?” shot Socialist Sarah. “Do you as a Journalist have skills in English, Research, History, Politics, or Agribusiness? Do you know how to investigate anything outside your echo chamber?” The political zone that is Canberra finds any concept of satire these days highly repellent.

The threshold of debate in Australian politics has been sewer-low for decades, but the latest turn has added another disfiguring side. The moment Turnbull decided that ministerial sexual conduct would become a matter of regulation in Parliament, the private became political. This public outing has destroyed perspective and proportion on what is relevant in Canberra’s political discourse. Innuendo can be used as weapon and shield; allegation can be implied and imputations delivered.

Instead of returning to the drawing board of measured discussion and the jousting associated with interaction in Canberra – policy and legislation needs to be made – political figures such as Cathy McGowan, MP, see the prospect of more regulation and codification.

“The community does have expectations of how politicians behave … that you be honest, that you be trustworthy, that you don’t tell lies, but they’re not encoded.” In doing so, all presumption to propriety, precisely because it requires encoding, goes out the window. The moral and ethical police will be emboldened, and they shall come from all sides of politics.

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  1. Aortic

    I notice the inimitable Miranda Devine in the Daily Tellmecrap blathering on about the mysoginistic Doug Cameron and his browbeating ways. The man is from Bellshill for Christs sake, nobody outside of a square kilometre of the place can understand anybody from there.

  2. Vixstar

    You just cherry picked the Carr story please read the entire conversation and accusations. Carr was thrown a bucket of shit about communism and reference to his career, please correct the story or you wilw be accused of spin.

  3. Vixstar

    Doug Cameron is well respected senator retiring this year. Devine is gutter journalism and that is being nice.

  4. Vixstar

    James Patterson is a nasty piece of work he models himself on Cash.

  5. Andreas

    Re #Aortic
    Unless you happen to be (poor soul), I cannot see where your problem lies. The man is articulate and has put his questions in a civilised and professional way. It is indicative that the respondent has not been able to reciprocate. But then, she’s got form, no?

  6. Andrew Smith

    Re. remarks about Patterson’s, and other LNP/IPA types with a strongly US influenced ideological outlook; I wonder if they realise how it has been described as ethically resonant of 1930s Germany ( according to former NYT journo Chris Hedges)?

  7. paul walter

    Had a good laugh over Carr. Everyone knows the LNP is full of middle class preppies and even when I was at uni, staff used to joke about the “Hitler Youth”, the sort who yearn on graduation to exercise their parental and private school inculcated Ayn Rand class prejudices at the IPA or the Murdoch Press.

  8. Kyran

    “This Cash did, “if anyone had been offended by them” and duly lodged a complaint about media filming her whiteboard shelter as she entered another estimates committee hearing.”
    That ‘complaint’ is of great concern, particularly if it is related to another ‘story’. Cash, and her staff are allegedly currently under investigation for tipping off the media about AFP and ROC raids, with the investigation being undertaken by the AFP. Bearing in mind most of the players have been outed, including those in Keenan’s office, you would have to wonder about the ability of the AFP.
    In the off chance you missed it;

    “A Nine camera operator got a close-up shot of the jobs minister texting on her mobile phone to staffers about how to avoid media scrutiny as she entered an estimates committee.”

    Seems straight forward enough. Cash has a track record of avoiding media scrutiny, whether it be her contempt of FOI rules and regulations, her abuse of legal processes, her ‘I forgot about that $mill property’, her use of ‘public interest immunity’, her ‘look over there’ screech. She is, clearly, an expert on avoiding media scrutiny.
    If a reporter got a screen shot of her advising her department of ‘how to avoid media scrutiny’, it would be newsworthy, wouldn’t it?

    “Uhlmann included the shot with the conversation clearly visible in his report for Nine News and posted the image on Twitter, but it has since been deleted.”

    Why would a reporter delete it? It is clear evidence of a minister doing what she has denied doing for years now. It would clearly be in the public interest to know how ministers avoid public scrutiny and how they get their staff to assist, wouldn’t it? Particularly given the fact that she has denied any collusion with De Garis, who was allegedly a ‘lone rogue leaker’. It would at least be of interest to the AFP, who, clearly, need all the help their inadequate incompetence can get when it comes to investigating the government. Bearing in mind the Keystone Cops are the high mark for those gits.

    “Uhlmann, a former ABC journalist, has been asked by the Senate’s usher of the black rod, Brien Hallett, to explain why he should not face a penalty for the breach. The penalties range from a single day ban on entering the chamber galleries right up to the cancellation of his press gallery pass.”


    Bearing in mind this idiot, Cash, was in a public area and was being filmed legally, shouldn’t the onus be on her to be a tad more careful about what she was texting? Given that the image was ‘caught’ legally and is, clearly, in the public interest, what ‘egregious breach’ of what rules have occurred?
    The date on that article is 2nd March, being last Friday. Chris Uhlman has not been on Chanel 9 (his current employer) since and the ABC (his previous employer) has not made one reference to it, that I have seen.
    If that was the complaint and it was Cash who made it (both of which are NOT detailed in the article), it is not Uhlman who needs to be ‘disciplined’, it is Cash, who needs to be fired.
    Naturally, nothing will happen. And we are meant to feel safe because the AFP are so good.
    Thankyou Dr Kampmark and commenters. Take care

  9. helvityni

    …. even cops and lawyers are scared of her, I certainly am, but then I’m scared of Rottweilers too….

  10. crowdfundie

    Binoy “With tiptoeing around language ravaging, and in some cases savaging discussion, pondering policy has become nigh impossible”. Yes, it looks like Murdoch and his muppets, as adjudicators of what the public must be interested in have won the Great Australian Policy debate. In a more intelligent universe, debate would revolve around public policies and not vicious personal gossip sessions. But as the LNP and Murdoch Inc have decided this is the Year of Sleaze and Innuendo, what can we do? When news providers (see muppets above) make obfuscation the order of the day this is what we get, a country destroying itself from within.
    On the upside, it could be worse.
    40 Minutes could clone that probing misogynist James Wooly to be farmed out to other media outlets.

  11. etnorb

    Have just read an earlier AIMN think piece that there are no “provisions” in the Federal parliament building “codes of conduct” or something like that, that protect any female from any sexual harassment etc! This is so typical of the way the Federal Parliament is really just a “big” (?) boys club, with little or no thought or protection for any female claims of sexual misconduct etc. Then we have Cashless sprouting about all the so-called “sluts” in Bill Shortens’ offices etc. And this from the female who was once the “Minister for Female Affairs” or something like that! In my opinion this Cashless s–t should be made to resign from the Parliament, after what she said & did regarding the bogus “raid” on a Union office last year, her derogatory remarks about female office staff, her spurious claims about the number of people now employed under the farcical “josongrowth” crap, her attempt to hide behind a whiteboard (WTF??) etc etc. She MUST go! Another great “think-piece” Dr Kampmark!, thank you!

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