Behind Michaelia Cash’s reference to female staff in Bill Shorten’s office is a pattern of Coalition attacks on the Opposition leader over his personal morals. By Karen Middleton.

Coalition targets Shorten's morals

Michaelia Cash at the Senate estimates hearing midweek.
Michaelia Cash at the Senate estimates hearing midweek.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ministerial sex ban has become a weapon against more than just Barnaby Joyce.

As the parliamentary week ended, Turnbull was defending his jobs minister, Michaelia Cash, after she alluded to rumours involving female staff in Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s office and threatened to name names.

Labor senator Doug Cameron asked Cash to name whoever had replaced the member of her own staff who resigned after a media tipoff about last year’s police raids on the Australian Workers’ Union.

Cash took exception.

“If you want to start discussing staff matters, be very, very careful, because I am happy to sit here and name every young woman in Mr Shorten’s office over which rumours in this place abound,” Michaelia Cash warned.

“If you want to go down that path today, I will do it. Do you want to start naming them… for Mr Shorten to come out and deny any of the rumours that have been circulating in this building now for many, many years?”

A bemused Cameron urged her to “take ... a chill pill” and pushed on.

Soon after, Cash fired back: “I’ve got a number of names I am happy to put on the record in a particular leader of the Opposition’s office. If you want to play that game, it is a very dangerous game to play.”

An hour later, Opposition Senate leader Penny Wong walked into the committee and demanded Cash withdraw her comments.

“We had the prime minister a week ago giving us a fairly moralising speech, saying we need to make this a better workplace for women,” Wong said, referring to Turnbull’s sex ban announcement.

“And the minister representing the minister for women comes in here making what can only be described as outrageous slurs about the character of female staff working for the leader of the Opposition.”

Wong called it “disgraceful and sexist” and said it impugned the character of staff and must not be allowed to stand. Cash suggested Doug Cameron had been maligning her staff.

“Rumours circulate in this building,” Cash said. “It does not mean they are true. I merely referred to rumours.”

Eventually, Cash said if anyone had been offended, she would withdraw. A parade of Labor MPs called for Cash to properly apologise. Some wanted her sacked. Senior Liberals accused them of “faux outrage” and trying to score political points.

After further questioning in Senate estimates on Thursday, Cash withdrew her comments unreservedly, while describing Cameron as a “bully”.

The Opposition framed Cash’s remarks solely as besmirching the reputation of Shorten’s female staff, when Cash’s objective appeared to be to besmirch the reputation of Shorten himself.

It was not the government’s first attempt.

The prime minister’s ministerial sex ban has now become a weapon to attack Shorten on personal values. Senior ministers are using it to justify an innuendo campaign.

Turnbull kicked it off last week in his 3AW interview. “What is Bill Shorten saying?” he asked. “Is he saying that he wants to be prime minister so ministers can have sexual relations with their staff?”

He followed up in parliament on Monday. “It took some while, some time, for the leader of the Opposition to agree with the proposition that ministers
must not engage in sexual relations with their staff.”

On Tuesday in question time, it was Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s turn. “This person is of impeccable character, I have no doubt,” Dutton said of Shorten, answering a question that was supposed to be about cancelling visas.

Dutton parlayed his answer into an attack on unions and Shorten.

“He has been involved in a number of affairs across his adult life,” Dutton said, without context or explanation. “He’s broken trust with so many people across his adult life.”

Asked two days later about Cash’s comments, Dutton insisted he was “not part of the moral police”.

“Over the course of the last couple of weeks I think we’ve been lectured to and moralised on by people that really should check their own situation first,” Dutton said. He declined to say what he meant.

On 2GB, Dutton said: “There is a history of problems in Bill Shorten’s personal life.”

Cash’s comments have united Labor and some Liberal MPs behind the view that it is a grubby exercise.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott called Cash’s attack “a brain snap” and “a pretty bad lapse”.

“There’s been far too much cheap smear and it’s time it ends,” Abbott told Radio 2GB. He said ministers were supposed to uphold higher standards, adding: “And we had no less a person than the prime minister go into the courtyard the other day and pontificate about higher standards.”

The prime minister’s sex ban, announced in response to revelations about former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s marriage breakdown and affair with his now-pregnant former media adviser, is starting to have the side effects some ministers warned about.

The primary impact of events that included the sex ban – and Turnbull’s associated criticisms – was Joyce’s loss of his job.

Joyce resigned as Nationals leader last Friday after most of his party colleagues abandoned him, despite having declared their ongoing support up to that point.

On February 14, Queensland senator Barry O’Sullivan declared Joyce remained leader “with absolute confidence”.

“You will not see our party move on it and we are the ones who you suggest have their careers and their reputations at stake here,” O’Sullivan said. “We will stand with this man.”

But they didn’t. Joyce resigned nine days later, ahead of being ousted on Monday.

That shift occurred over several days.

On Wednesday afternoon, February 21, the prime minister flew to the United States. Before he left, he spoke with the secretary of his department, Martin Parkinson. At some point, he also spoke to Joyce.

Joyce had insisted repeatedly to Turnbull that he had not breached the prime minister’s ministerial standards in either his travel claims or the employment arrangements for his now-partner, Vikki Campion.

Joyce had agreed to take a week’s personal leave while Turnbull was away, to avoid further media attention. But he kept giving media interviews, declaring he had done nothing wrong and would remain Nationals leader.

Not convinced by Joyce’s assurances, Turnbull told him he wanted to have his conduct examined against the ministerial standards, in the interests of “complete transparency”. But when he took off for the US, Turnbull had not officially ordered the examination.

Hours later, while en route, he wrote an email to Parkinson on his phone, asking him to look into it and provide advice on whether there had been a breach. It was sent at 12.24am on Thursday Australian time, apparently during a refuelling stop in Hawaii.

Earlier that night, Fairfax newspapers had begun promoting an interview with Joyce and Campion that would appear in the following morning’s paper.

In it, Joyce condemned the media attention and said Turnbull had never asked him directly about the relationship with Campion. If he had, Joyce said he would have lied.

“If I think something is private and not in breach of the code, I don’t think it’s other people’s business,” Joyce said.

Turnbull had already declared he held a different view. “Ministers must not have sexual relations with their staff, full stop,” Turnbull told 3AW. “So there’s no longer any ambiguity, any greyness. It’s not private, right? If you do that, then you should offer your resignation.”

Joyce had no intention of resigning. But on Thursday afternoon, Victorian Nationals MP Andrew Broad announced on social media that he would be demanding a leadership spill on Monday after all.

Joyce’s colleagues had begun to turn.

On Thursday night, The Daily Telegraph published a story online saying the Nationals had received a sexual harassment complaint against Joyce.

The Nationals’ federal president, Larry Anthony, has now confirmed that early last week he asked for what was previously a verbal complaint to be put in writing, he says so he could investigate it.

It found its way into the newspaper.

Anthony denied both that it came from the Nationals and that it was part of a strategy to force Joyce to resign. But on Friday afternoon, Joyce announced he was going. On Monday morning, the Nationals elected New South Wales MP Michael McCormack as leader.

Joyce denies the harassment allegation but called it the final straw. His colleagues thought the same.

That afternoon, Martin Parkinson wrote back to the prime minister saying with Joyce no longer a minister he saw no point in continuing his examination.

Turnbull’s exchanges with Parkinson only became public on Monday this week, during a Senate estimates hearing. Turnbull told parliament that although Parkinson’s inquiries had ceased, the watchdog on MPs’ expenses, the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, was still looking into travel claims for both Joyce and Vikki Campion.

Joyce was asked if he thought he would lead the Nationals again one day. He said he didn’t think so, but added: “I never rule anything in or anything out because otherwise later on in life you look like a hypocrite.”

That’s exactly the allegation the government is levelling at Bill Shorten, both through the innuendo of Michaelia Cash and others, and directly on matters of policy.

Shorten responded on Facebook that it was “this sort of nonsense” that turned people off politics.

“We should be focusing on the things that matter to Australians, not hurtling insults and making up stories about people who can’t defend themselves,” he said.

“The prime minister said a few weeks ago that the parliament needed to be a more respectful workplace for women. I agree with him. Maybe he should try doing something about it.”

Turnbull suggested Cash had been “bullied and provoked”.

His ban might be designed to stop ministers having inappropriate sex, but it hasn’t stopped them talking about it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 3, 2018 as "Cash bucks".

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