“Vannie, keep up the fight,” were the late right-wing Liberal senator Jim Molan’s last words to then Liberal senator David Van before Molan’s death in 2022.
Molan, a former ADF major general, gave him the verbal stiffener when leaving a meeting of the Coalition defence committee, chaired by Van, who recounted it in his condolence speech on Molan’s death.
One of the things he admired most about Molan, Van told parliament, was “his commitment to his values”. Upon entering the Senate in 2018, Molan was busted by The Sydney Morning Herald for having previously posted “offensive, right-wing propaganda videos from an extremist, anti-Muslim right-wing group” on his Facebook page.
“Vannie”, in any case, didn’t manage to “keep up the fight”. He proved a disconcerted foe when faced with a genuine warrior in the person of independent Senator Lidia Thorpe.
The showdown happened while Van was mid speech in the Senate on June 14.
The Coalition had been pounding Finance Minister Katy Gallagher for days with questions about foreknowledge of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ planned media disclosure of her alleged rape by then colleague Bruce Lehrmann. (Lehrmann denies the charge and court proceedings against him did not proceed because of juror misconduct during the trial.)
In the reality field distortion that constitutes daily life in the Coalition, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton figured it was smart politics to try to make Gallagher look like the bad guy in the story of one Liberal staffer allegedly raping another on the couch of their Liberal cabinet minister’s office a short distance from then Liberal prime minister Scott Morrison’s office.
This was Dutton’s big move, four years after the alleged event and two years after it came to public notice – now, during a cost-of-living crisis, burgeoning homelessness and likely further interest rate rises.
What was Dutton thinking? Had he dozed through the genderquake 2022 election where female Liberal voter disgust at the Coalition’s appalling gender politics saw them desert in numbers so large the Libs’ blue-ribbon metropolitan seats were stripped from them by centrist female independents? Has the federal Liberal Party secretariat kept from Dutton polling showing that not only have the women voters who deserted the Coalition under Morrison stayed away, but even more have deserted since?
Regardless, Dutton could have read, the very morning of Van’s speech, the Resolve poll published in the Nine papers showing fewer than three in 10 women (29 per cent) would have voted for the Coalition had an election been held in June – a repudiation that would have made Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies’ ashes re-combust in Melbourne General Cemetery. (A gender split with women favouring the Liberals over Labor was the backbone of Menzies’ seven election wins from 1949.)
Dutton’s wrongful, foolhardy claim that Labor politicised the alleged rape of Higgins shows he’s neither very nice nor very bright. And letting Van get up and bag out Labor that afternoon in the Senate, on the pretext of discussing the Sex Discrimination Commission’s “Set the Standard” report, suggests he’s as ignorant of the goings on within his own party as Morrison claimed to be over the alleged rape of Higgins – an improbable proposition.
There are three accusations against “Vannie”. He denies wrongdoing in each.
At Thorpe’s request, having alleged harassment by Van while Morrison was prime minister and Dutton a member of his cabinet, Van had been made to move office away from hers, which Dutton’s cabinet colleague Senator Simon Birmingham knew about because he facilitated the move. The then Liberal senator Amanda Stoker alleges Van inappropriately touched her in 2020, that she called him out on it and he had to apologise, and that she had told at least one Liberal colleague at the time. Then there’s a third woman with allegations against Van, anonymous at the time of writing but thought to be a former Liberal MP too. All denied, of course.
It was provocative in the extreme, therefore, for Van to be involved in the outrageous, concerted Coalition attack over Labor’s support for Higgins. And it was the embodiment of male entitlement, of male privilege, of male overconfidence – of male stupidity – for Van to think he could get away with tipping a bucket on Labor in parliament over this, given that at least three MPs knew of allegations against him.
When Van declared that as “parliamentarians we need to be focused on setting the standard for all Australians”, it lit Thorpe’s considerable fuse.
“We know what you were doing!” she interjected. “I can’t believe they put you up to make this speech.”
A few more interjections from Thorpe later, followed the next day by her moving speech not naming Van but describing being “followed aggressively, propositioned and inappropriately touched” in Parliament House, and Van’s time was nearly up. When Thorpe’s criticisms were reinforced by Stoker’s allegations and news of a third complainant, forcing Dutton to act, Van protested all the way to the crossbench.
Dutton had at first denigrated Thorpe as someone with “a lot of issues” who needed “to seek support”. This echoed Morrison’s disgraceful faux compassionate comments designed to stigmatise and undermine former MP Julia Banks when she dumped the Libs and went to the crossbench over Coalition bullying in 2018.
Then Van suddenly became an unsalvageable political liability. Dutton cut him loose from the Liberal Party, saying he wasn’t satisfied with Van’s responses to the allegations and publicly calling for him to resign from the Senate.
The Liberals haven’t worked out that the world has changed. That women have agency. That they’re not going to shut up and take it any more. And that this has consequences, personal and electoral. The party’s “man problem” has been prominently on show since Banks first shone a bright light on the brutish man cave Coalition politics has become, which Higgins’ and former staffer Rachelle Miller’s experiences underlined, and which the closing of Liberal ranks around former Morrison cabinet minister Christian Porter came to symbolise.
The flow-on effects from Higgins’ willingness to speak out about her experience in a Parliament House cabinet minister’s office changed history, contributing to federal power changing hands – something that’s only happened eight times since World War Two.
Thorpe’s visceral outrage at Van’s “Set the Standard” speech, and her testimony in parliament the next day, ended only one Liberal senator’s political career, but also reminded every woman in Australia where the Liberal Party is still at on women. Thorpe has a considerable political lineage. Her grandmother, Alma Thorpe, was involved in the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy protest in Canberra; her mother, Marjorie Thorpe, was a co-commissioner on the Stolen Generations inquiry. Those who underestimated her perhaps have a better sense of her capacities now.
What’s more, Thorpe’s characterisation of the long, empty corridors of Parliament House points to a deep truth about that building: it has been bad for Australian politics and bad for many individuals in it too. While magnificent in its external conception, its internal design promotes isolation, alienation and domination. Thorpe is the first to really convey this, including in relation to its gendered dimension.
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” Winston Churchill said in 1943. Parliament House has not been a positive force shaping our nation since the move from its far better functioning predecessor in 1988.
We don’t have to be stuck with a building that makes life good for the bad guys.
The National Archives of Australia has never had a permanent home and needs one. Let’s put it in Parliament House. We can build a new parliament house, positive by design. It could be on federal land at Jervis Bay, alongside the naval base – HMAS Creswell – which might be adapted to be the AUKUS nuclear-powered subs’ home, should they ever actually get built.
Now that’s what I call alignment.
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