Diary

Gadfly
Sweating bullets as women march on

Thousands upon thousands of women marched across the nation, holding aloft placards and signs demanding change, demanding justice, demanding an end to the chronic lack of safety endemic in their lives. They asked that the government, with all its power and authority, create that change, implement that justice, forge a safer world for them. The government’s response was, at best, indifferent, and at its worst, malicious.

A woman alleged an act of sexual assault by a prominent personality. For it, she’s been vilified by his friends and colleagues, many of whom have access to the most powerful organs used for the shaping of public opinion. Her sanity is questioned; her motives are dissected.

Legal proceedings are begun – not to test the veracity of her claim, but to defend the honour and integrity of the accused, because a man’s reputation is what society values more than anything. The right-wing press attacks the woman, lies about her, and degrades all the women who marched in support of her.

These have been the stories dominating the headlines in Pakistan for the past few weeks. The woman is a famous singer, and the man she accused a rich and powerful actor and singer himself. He’s got several women who claim he has shown evidence of such behaviour in the past. He’s responded to the allegations by launching defamation proceedings.

Even the Daily Mail got involved, publishing a story that falsely claimed the woman is already a criminal. Even though it’s untrue, the narrative is now out there. Women across Pakistan marched for justice, and many are now being threatened and abused. The Pakistani government, meanwhile, is pretending none of it happened, only acknowledging the saga long enough to congratulate itself for not punishing the women for daring to speak out and protest.

I never thought Prime Minister Scott Morrison was such a watcher of Pakistani politics. He must be, because his response to the March 4 Justice rallies has been to see them as an achievement of “a vibrant liberal democracy”, pointing out how “such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country”.

It’s the kind of hurdling over a low bar that is all too familiar to anyone who’s migrated from a developing nation where a corrupt political class oversees the disenfranchisement of its populace.

Perhaps Morrison was comparing Australia with Britain, where women were holding a vigil for a woman allegedly murdered by a policeman, only for those keeping vigil to be assaulted by more police. At least we’re better than the Brits then, if not better than Pakistan.

When it comes to women’s rights, there’s really not a lot of pressure inside parliament for Morrison to raise the bar, given the lows to which his parliamentary colleagues are willing to sink. Take One Nation senator and Kochie’s erstwhile Sunrise guest, Pauline Hanson, who this week asked us to Please Explain why we’re listening to rape victims, when the real victims here are, “men who have been accused of these things that didn’t, it didn’t happen”.

Academic researchers repeatedly find false reports of rape are very rare. On the bright side, though, this is the closest Pauline Hanson has come to supporting a minority community.

Defame and defortune

Attorney-General Christian Porter took time out of his mental health leave to reconsider his own words.

In 2019, at a speech to the National Press Club, he said, “I think it is fair to say that current defamation laws no longer strike the perfect balance between public interest journalism and protecting individuals from reputation harm”, signalling a desire for reform.

It turns out, though, that Porter thinks the law is great as is, and the balance really is weighted in the right direction, as he launches defamation proceedings against the ABC and journalist Louise Milligan.

“The trial by media should now end with the commencement of these proceedings,” a statement from Porter’s lawyer declared.

This must have been a shock to the attorney-general’s supporters at News Corp – that is, all of News Corp – who literally have nothing else to do except conduct trials by media, trials by the court of public opinion, trials by mob and trials by Peter van Onselen’s buddy circle.

Porter has retained the services of barrister Bret Walker, SC, who is reputed to charge $25,000 for each day in court. While it’s understood Porter won’t be using taxpayer funds to pay this fee, taxpayer funds will be used to defend the ABC against the defamation claim, as well as to pay out any settlement that may eventuate.

Maybe this is what the government meant when they said they didn’t have the funds to give us a substantial increase in JobSeeker payments.

Laboring the point on harassment

As it turns out, sexual harassment and assault are the only truly bipartisan issues in Australian politics. This week, the spotlight has swung on to Labor as well, as a private Facebook page run by current and former Labor women staffers came to light. Staffers shared detailed stories of MPs and male staffers indulging in aggressive behaviour, married men sending inappropriate messages and others making derogatory comments.

Anthony Albanese has responded with concern. Because names weren’t reported, he said, he was encouraging the staffers to come forward. He didn’t add that those people can probably expect to have defamation lawsuits levelled against them. Defamation law is seemingly the only part of Australia’s justice system that takes women’s allegations of harassment or assault seriously.

Given the fairly detailed allegations Labor staffers have made in the private group, it’s surprising to discover that not one of the men involved is already known to the leadership of the Labor Party. At this point, we need to consider that social distancing rules in Canberra might be too strict, if no one seems to be able to get close enough to leadership and tell them about what’s happening in their ranks.

Cormann’s convenient capers

One time, a friend of mine wanted a job as a clerk at a convenience store. So he asked me to spruce up his résumé and act as his referee. I did both, even lying about how great he was as a clerk at the store I owned. I don’t own a store; I barely own this week’s groceries I just bought. But he got the job. It’s just what mates do for one another in a pinch. Which is exactly the kind of care and consideration the federal government showed when spending more than $1 million of taxpayer money flying Mathias Cormann around the world to guarantee him the role of secretary-general of the wealthy and powerful Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Journalist Bevan Shields also revealed that Cormann was given permission to travel overseas twice during a global pandemic to lobby for the job in Europe and America, and that Scott Morrison made 55 calls to 30 world leaders to spruik his former Finance minister’s wares. This included steering the conversation towards Cormann during a number of leaders’ video meetings about Covid-19.

I bet my friend wishes he was mates with Scott Morrison; all I did was change the fonts on his CV and fib a little about his work experience.

Cormann’s appointment has come as a disappointment for anyone hoping the OECD was going to take the climate crisis seriously, despite the former MP singling out climate change as a key challenge. It isn’t clear whether he means tackling it as a problem is the challenge, or ignoring it as a potential end of human civilisation that’s the challenge. Here’s hoping Cormann lasts about as long as my friend did in his clerk job: two days.

Battin tries on his skinny jeans

It’s been a while since we had a leadership spill in the Liberal Party. Luckily the Victorian Liberals decided to indulge our nostalgia for the good old days. Taking a cue from the massacre of their Western Australian colleagues in the recent state election there, Victorian Opposition leader Michael O’Brien found himself having to contend with a challenger.

However, as it turns out, leadership spills are a lot like skinny jeans – fun in theory, but no one actually wants them to make a comeback. O’Brien managed to fend off Gembrook’s Brad Battin and remain opposition leader. Of course, this doesn’t mean the spills are over. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett has described the failed coup as “foreplay”, which explains more than anyone wanted to know about Kennett’s sex life. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Gadfly: Sweating bullets as women march on".

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Sami Shah is a multi-award-winning comedian, writer and journalist.