July 2023

Comment

Van damned

By Chris Wallace
Illustration of suited man directign another suited man to leave
The events surrounding Senator David Van’s expulsion to the crossbench show the Liberal Party still has a problem with attitudes towards women

“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.

Some values.

“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.

Chris Wallace

Chris Wallace is a political historian at the University of Canberra. Her most recent book is Political Lives: Australian Prime Ministers and their Biographers.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

‘You don’t have to like people, only love them’

An observation from Father Bob Maguire – and an antisemitic man in need of charity – taught the author a valuable life lesson

Illustration of vendor filling cup to sell drink to customer

Chai standards

Pining for an authentic Indian street-corner chai leads the author to a gastronomic carpark in Geelong

Image of Patrick Dodson leaning into smoke at a ceremony with hands cupped

A firelight stick on the hill

As momentum builds to this year’s referendum, the man long regarded as the ‘Father of Reconciliation’ reflects on a life fighting for a better Australia

Coloured illustration from antiquity of cockatoo standing on grass

The voice and our inauthentic heart

Racism, the Murdoch media and what success or defeat for the voice to parliament means for the stories we tell


More in Comment

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Parliament House, Canberra, under a sunset

An executive summary

Labor’s pledge to depoliticise the public service is undermined by the government only hearing what it wants to hear on climate change

Image of Treasurer Jim Chalmers standing at lectern at Parliament House, October 25, 2023, taken from side stage

What kind of year has it been?

Was 2023 – beyond the referendum calamity – a year of government timidity or a demonstration of its ability to keep the national conversation on course?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Truth after the Voice

The lost opportunity of the Voice referendum revealed Australians’ poor understanding of the Constitution, and the level of racism in the community


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality