Barnaby Joyce had been at his belligerent best in the days before he resigned as Nationals leader, believing he could weather the storm around his relationship with his former staffer, and return to the top job he’d held for two years.
But on Thursday The Daily Telegraph published details of a sexual harassment complaint from a prominent Western Australian woman. Joyce called the “litany of allegations”, made confidentially to The Nationals and to be investigated by the party, “spurious and defamatory”, and asked for it to be referred to the police.
But he acknowledged the claims were the straw “that broke the camel’s back”.
Just a day later, the woman who made the confidential complaint, Catherine Marriott, was also outed in the media. She’s a former West Australian Rural Woman of the Year and highly admired and respected in the agriculture sector.
How this all unfolded is a reminder of the brutal realities of Australian politics.
For all the sanctimony from Canberra about privacy in recent weeks, it’s the first thing thrown overboard in the name of political expediency, #metoo elbowed aside for #mefirst.
Someone leaked the complaint, and then the complainant behind it. Some Nationals and Liberals are now attempting to point the finger at each other. Everyone denies responsibility. No one has vowed to find out who was responsible.
It has women aghast that their wishes in a highly sensitive matter will not be respected and as Mark Kenny details in Fairfax Media, some senior Nationals figures believe “the allegations were weaponised to blast the former deputy prime minister from cabinet”.
Kenny offers a timeline of what happened. It appears the alleged incident occurred outside a beef industry event at Canberra’s Kurrajong Hotel in August 2017.
Fairfax believes there was a series of meetings between WA Nationals and federal party figures between February 16 and 19 over the matter, before the party’s national president, Larry Anthony, a former MP and minister, urged Marriott to lodge a formal complaint, which she did last Tuesday, February 20.
That timeline perhaps provides some context for the WA Nationals announcing the withdrawal of their support for Joyce over that period.
Forced out into the open, Marriott’s lawyer, Emma Salerno, said the complaint involved alleged “sexual harassment and/or sexual misconduct”.
Marriott issued her own statement over the weekend, saying: “I requested that a formal and confidential investigation into this incident be undertaken by the National Party to ensure there is accountability in relation to the incident I raise, and to prevent this type of inappropriate behaviour towards women in the future.”
She is no disgruntled political opponent and was clear about her motives and reaffirmed that she “never intended for this issue to become public”.
“This complaint was not made solely to address the incident against me — it is about speaking up against inappropriate behaviour by people in powerful positions,” she said.
But women are taking note about the unsettling way things are playing out.
While many have rallied around Marriott in support – and that’s not to suppose Joyce’s guilt or innocence – the potential for calumny to be visited upon women who complain is clear.
ABC Radio’s AM program spoke today to National Farmers’ Federation Fiona Simson about fears that speaking out again brings its own repercussions for women, who still feel “a little bit guilty about calling some of it out”.
“Am I going to be trolled if it’s on social media? Am I going to be outed in the workplace? Am I going to lose my job, am I going to be able to progress on the career path that I’m on?” she said.
Simson says she’s experienced several instances of bullying and harassment over the past decade and supported others through it. She’s lodged her own internal complaints, but knows “a lot of women just get on with it”.
She’s in no doubt that the way the Marriott matter is unfolding will make it harder for women to tackle sexual harassment and will put some off acting at all.
Another former Rural Woman of the Year, Robbie Sefton, told AM she was “shocked” and “disappointed” by how the complaint was being treated after Marriott tried to do it the most professional way that any normal business person would”.
If dealing with harassment in the workplace was one of the key themes of 2017, the Marriott complaint is a clear example of how far political culture still has to go in taking the matter seriously and professionally.
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