In the wake of the Victorian election, billed as a triumph of positivity over negative campaigning, staffers reveal the lengths political parties went to in releasing dirt on their opponents. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Inside the Victorian election dirt files
It was the morning of the day the Herald Sun would carry his name on its front page, and Paul McMillan was on suicide watch. Hours earlier, the Greens staffer had presented himself to a hospital’s emergency department, accompanied by his partner. He first told his story to a triage nurse, who later asked McMillan’s partner if the story was true – “presumably because it was something someone with psychosis might say,” McMillan told me.
Over the course of that night and into the early morning, McMillan repeated his story to the inquiring emergency doctors who would check on him. Twelve hours after his self-admission, at 9 o’clock on Monday morning, the crisis assessment and treatment team arrived. A member of the team, comprising psychiatrists rather than emergency doctors, was directed to McMillan. “So,” they said. “What happened?”
The results of the Victorian election surprised even its own benefactors. Labor watched, with grinning astonishment, as the voters of Brighton – the verdant, bayside citadel of Menzies liberalism – flirted with electing their teenaged placeholder candidate. Something was up. Something big.
Election outcomes are obviously complex, multicausal. There is a swirl of federal, state and local issues. But this multicausality, and the impossibility of determining, precisely, the weight of every variable, gives cover to those invested in concealing calamities.
Yet if Liberals were now staring at a preponderantly red map, and bitterly reinforcing their divisions, Labor were largely of one mind: insiders told me they won because they were positive, because they sold their achievements and aspirations, because they had ignored the media and consulted directly with the people. So did outsiders. On election night, former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, not without his own axes to grind, praised the positivity of Andrews’ campaign.
As a Labor campaigner told me: “I’d never heard Andrews or a minister talking about the media perpetuating gossip, insider crap. They never felt the need to say it. They weren’t desperately trying to convince the public, ‘We’re not insiders, we’re just like you.’ They were confident that they were speaking to voters directly about issues that mattered to them. They were always confident that their messages were resonating. Didn’t worry about what the media were saying, nor did they feel they had to attack the media. I don’t think voters are listening to media commentators, or what the editorials are, or the scandals on the front page.”
It was a positive campaign, but not without qualification. In five inner-city seats – three held by the Greens, two by Labor, all of them, notionally at least, a crapshoot – the contest was ruthless. While the Andrews government emphasised its progressive achievements for the electorates’ progressive voters – Safe Schools, voluntary euthanasia, improved renters’ rights, a state treaty process, increased funding for public transport – it had also determined to ruthlessly exploit the Greens scandals, to “hoist them on their own petard” as one campaigner told me.
There was no shortage of material. “The Greens stand accused of 23 cases of inappropriate behaviour including bullying, discrimination and even sexual assault,” read one Labor-endorsed poster that had become ubiquitous in Melbourne’s inner city. An associated website offered news sources for the allegations, which included a story this paper had reported on an alleged sexual assault and bungled response from the ACT Greens.
Among the list of scandals and allegations were claims of sexual discrimination and bullying made against Victoria’s previous Greens leader Greg Barber, who had settled with a former staff member but said that he had never conceded the complaint, and an allegation of sexual misconduct made against New South Wales Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham by a party member, which he has denied and argued an independent workplace investigation had cleared him of. Following Luke Foley’s resignation as NSW Opposition leader last month, after it was revealed he allegedly inappropriately touched a reporter, a claim Foley denies, NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong spoke in parliament to reprosecute arguments for Buckingham’s resignation. “Jeremy’s actions and behaviour – some widely reported and documented and some still held in confidence, which must be respected – have had a real and lasting consequence on individual women, members and former members of our party as well as active volunteers in our party,” she said.
Shortly after Leong’s speech, the federal Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, echoed her call. This occurred during a Victorian campaign that quickly strung together scandals of varying substance. Upper house candidate Joanna Nilson resigned after the Herald Sun published social media posts from 2015 that joked about shoplifting and recreational drug use. It was discovered that Footscray candidate Angus McAlpine, in a past life as rapper DJ FatGut, had rapped about date rape and “faggots”. Nilson’s resignation was accepted, but McAlpine remained as a candidate, receiving the full support of the Greens hierarchy.
Some Greens members to whom I spoke were confused about the apparent inconsistency, and mused on their belief that support for McAlpine was simply the measure of his influential political allegiances. The Greens denied this. In a statement to me, Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam said: “Each case is assessed individually and in its own context. As a support candidate, Joanna offered her resignation so as to not be a distraction for the campaign ... Angus has clearly demonstrated he is committed to the values shared by the Greens. He went through a challenging period in his life where he made some extremely poor choices, but came out stronger on the other side. The Greens believe in people’s capacity to change. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in politics.”
Two days before the election, the Greens candidate for Sandringham, Dominic Phillips, was stood down after the party received an allegation of rape against him. Phillips has not yet responded publicly to the allegation. “We have acted swiftly and decisively, we’re taking it very seriously and the candidate has been stood down,” Ratnam said. “This is a very, very serious matter and we have taken it with the seriousness it has required and tried to ensure due and fair process to all involved.”
In an additional statement to me, Ratnam responded to questions about the party’s vetting procedure: “The Greens will undertake a full election review following the 2018 campaign, including vetting processes. It is important for processes to be updated as technology changes and more of candidates’ lives are played out online.”
Disclosure: I have known Paul McMillan for years. In the days following his hospitalisation, I was a friend, not a journalist. Writing on this is obviously fraught. While my relationship may colour the story, I don’t believe it discredits it.
A little over a year ago, McMillan joined the electorate office of Lidia Thorpe, after her historic election as the first Indigenous woman to the Victorian parliament. The November 2017 Northcote byelection, which followed the death of its Labor incumbent, Fiona Richardson, was politely contested between Thorpe and the Labor candidate, Clare Burns, who enjoyed a wash of money, the presence of a popular premier and the unveiling of Labor’s rental reform bill. On the ground, however, resentments festered between the two campaign teams, who accused each other of dirty tactics.
Both parties expected the result to be close – as it was, though, the byelection was called within hours. The Greens had attracted a triumphant swing of 11.6 per cent, denying Labor the seat for the first time in almost a century.
The Greens party optimistically extrapolated – could it win five lower house seats next state election? Was a Labor–Greens coalition a possibility? On the Labor side, some dejectedly pondered their future in the inner city. It was premature. Four months later, in March of this year, a federal byelection was held in the seat of Batman, an electorate that includes all of Northcote. The Labor campaign was large, disciplined and energetically cohered around its popular candidate, Ged Kearney. The Greens, meanwhile, were dispirited, suffering a highly public internal campaign of sabotage. Kearney won comfortably.
Still, come last week’s state election, the Greens were optimistic. Five seats remained a possibility, and few thought the party could lose the seat of Northcote won only a year prior. But there was the spectre of scandals – multiple scandals, and grave accusations, across different states – and then the unforgiving attention to a string of local ones.
There are official campaign strategies, with their endorsed budgets, talking points, media releases, pledges, corflutes and direct mail. Then there are the unofficial elements, sometimes conducted by mischievous freelancers, sometimes commissioned with a wink and a nod. These small shadow campaigns, acts of deflection or misdirection, are common and unseen by the majority of voters.
In Melbourne’s inner city, Facebook pages sprouted that were purportedly the work of aggrieved ex-Greens members imploring progressive electors to vote Labor. They also developed Facebook adverts, which could be targeted to those living in contestable seats. “Not Our Greens” was one such page that – according to a Labor campaigner – was made by Labor members.
Elsewhere, the Northcote Greens received word that McMillan’s Twitter account, going back to 2012, had started to attract attention. Nine days out from the election, Greens media advisers were notified of the threat and told that “your staffer is not going to have a good week”. This would prove true.
“Shit sheets” – the collection of compromising material on a political rival – are as easy to pull together as searching someone’s social media. Then, they’re shopped around to journalists. In McMillan’s case, there is no suggestion at all that the political use of his tweets was authorised by the Labor party.
McMillan’s selected tweets canvassed sex, paedophilia, racism and various allegations of sexual misconduct made against Greens figures. One tweet, taken from his feed and offered to reporters, read: “If I was a Greens MP under suspicion for sexual assault or a party figure implicated in a wider culture that is unsafe for women, I would simply claim that any and all claims are a factional attack.”
McMillan says it was offered not as dark advice but as his own angry, incautious thoughts on Jeremy Buckingham. All the other tweets were equally incautious. “I had a tweet that was parodying someone’s view that Muslims had tried to ban Christmas,” McMillan says of another post. “So we had a thread of people parodying this thought, with versions of that. Mine was saying, ‘I can’t believe Muslims have banned me smearing myself in pig grease’, or something. Out of context, it looks horrific.”
Faced with the tweets, Greens media advisers thought a possible frame for the story would be “Greens staffer condemns his own party”. Instead, the Herald Sun’s piece presented the tweets as genuinely held beliefs rather than sarcasm. The Saturday Paper understands that other media outlets, approached with the story, dismissed it.
Late Sunday night, the story went live online: “Greens MP’s staffer offers to quit over vile tweets,” read the headline. Subsequent articles described the tweets as “sickening” and “misogynistic”.
“My tweets were used to imply that I was saying the complete opposite of what I intended,” McMillan says. “They found what they thought would work best to damage Lidia and didn’t give any thought to the intention of the tweet – they thought about how the tweet would look in isolation, in the worst possible faith.”
McMillan offered his resignation on Sunday afternoon. It was immediately accepted. Lidia Thorpe publicly expressed frustration and disappointment, noting that it was an employment breach, but also that the tweets were satirical. Samantha Ratnam told me: “As a staffer, Paul is subject to employment conditions that were clearly breached.” She later added: “I will leave the question of how ethical it is to trawl through social media accounts and drop out-of-context dirt sheets to media outlets for Labor to answer, but it was telling that they refused to debate on policy.”
Two days after the story, the Herald Sun published a photograph of a young Labor candidate for the upper house. Lying naked on a large spread of copies of Monash University’s student magazine, Lot’s Wife, Jan Morgiewicz ensured some modesty with one copy opened over his crotch. Morgiewicz said the photo was a sardonic response to his belief that the magazine had been politically exploited by student factions; the former editor, seeing Morgiewicz’s use of the magazine’s yearly feminist issue, believed the image was grossly disrespectful of a “publication that advocated and provided a voice for women”.
Labor saw a retaliatory move from the Greens – but it was a spitball in response to a grenade. Morgiewicz was an unwinnable fourth on the Labor ticket for Northern Victoria. Still, one campaigner wondered where it might end. An hour after its publication, I received a text from a Labor campaigner: “I think we’re all going to regret this.”
They were only half joking.
Come election night, the Greens suffered a statewide swing against them of 1.7 per cent. The party’s female vote declined, its hopes were dashed in Richmond, and Northcote was lost. With counting still continuing, we cannot say what the Greens representation will ultimately be in the Victorian parliament – but it’s possible it may be whittled to just one member in each chamber.
“I’m proud of the platform we put forward and our strong field campaign,” Ratnam said. “We concentrated on issues that are critical to Victoria’s future: addressing homelessness and housing affordability, a plan to get out of coal and move to 100 per cent renewable energy, and a world-class public transport system. It is not the result we hoped for and we are devastated to lose MPs. Lidia Thorpe will be a great loss to the parliament, especially in keeping the government accountable as Victoria pursues treaty negotiations.”
Campaigners from both sides expressed to me some apprehension about the political “weaponising” – that word was used a lot – of the #MeToo movement. Not least because it was seen by some as the cynical co-option of victims’ stories, used either in the abstract or, worse, used specifically and against the wishes of the women in question.
Obviously, these issues are not limited to the Greens. We saw this tactic when an allegation of sexual harassment against Barnaby Joyce, lodged privately with the Western Australian Nationals in February this year, was leaked despite the complainant’s request for privacy.
We saw it again when ABC reporter Ashleigh Raper’s privacy was repeatedly compromised, prompting a public statement about her allegations against Luke Foley: “This is a position I never wanted to be in and a statement I never intended to make. But I think the time has come for my voice to be heard, for the following reasons: The escalation of the public debate, including in state and federal parliament, despite my expressed wish to neither comment nor complain, and the likelihood of ongoing media and political interest.”
There is no suggestion that Greens scandals, and questions about the party’s organisational culture, are not fair game for the Labor Party. A Greens member told me that if these scandals were ventilated during an election, so be it; it needed to be done. But the parameters of these attacks are rarely drawn in good faith – they resemble arms races more than any sincere attempt to improve political culture.
Last week, when Sky News panellist Paul Murray was speaking with guests off-air – but, unwittingly, not off-mic – he fumed about the Greens handling of allegations of sexual misconduct. “These are the people who have pushed the threshold of ‘an accusation equals guilty’ to the point – unless of course there’s an accusation against them,” he said. “No, fuck you! You can enjoy the system you’ve created for everyone else. You know, you can enjoy the hair-trigger of accusation and...” Murray didn’t finish the comment – he was back live.
This isn’t a unique view. There is a sharp acrimony between Labor and Greens campaigners, not least in the inner-city seats of Melbourne, where their rivalry is most practical. In conversations with Labor campaigners, there is an insistence on Greens’ hypocrisy – the space between their rhetoric and reality. This response, from a Labor campaigner is fairly representative: “If a party has a scandal, or an issue, it’s not unusual for opponents to make hay of it. The Greens have certainly seized upon things Labor candidates have said or done. The Greens left themselves open to attack, and Labor, to be brutally honest, was a lot better at it.”
The campaigner continued: “The Greens want to be a big party, but as soon as they face the same criticism or scrutiny of the big parties, they retreat. It’s an unforgiving game. The fact that we live in a world and a political culture that is unforgiving, and if we see someone who offends our moral standards, we’re very quick to attack them – even if we know that as hard as we go after our enemies, they’re going to come back at us. When you create a culture where people make mistakes, that they’re irredeemable, you have to know it will be turned back on you … The Greens fucked up pretty badly. You can’t fight these things with such passion and be surprised when you’re called out as a hypocrite.”
Labor’s anti-Greens campaign was effective, not least because more than a few Greens members felt disillusioned. But while the Labor campaign against the Greens may have been legitimately grounded, and subconcussively effective, it functioned – like so much political rhetoric – as a giant hammer. It bludgeoned all manner of scandals, illusory or grave, into one lump of evidence.
Outside the heat of the zero-sum contest, campaigners of both stripes admitted to me that where there are concentrations of powerful men, there will likely be abuses of that power. More nuanced concerns were also raised – just when, exactly, do we publicly exile people from public life, to render them persona non grata? When – and why – do we preclude an individual’s reformation?
Our political debates are made increasingly insensible with rancour and bad faith – and even Paul McMillan recognises the twin edges of the ideological sword. “Maybe if this had happened to a campaigner in another party, I’d have been more than willing to condemn him,” he says. “That’s troubling. I don’t like that.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 1, 2018 as "Inside the Vic election dirt files ".
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