The Politics    Thursday, December 2, 2021

Tudge and go

By Rachel Withers

Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacts during Question Time today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Is Morrison’s standing down of Alan Tudge a sign that he’s listening to women or watching the polls?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has failed, time and time and time again, to show leadership when it comes to the mistreatment of women in politics. Today, he was given another chance to show he takes the issue seriously (opportunities to call out sexism in the Liberal Party never cease, it seems), this time in the form of Education Minister Alan Tudge. Tudge’s former media adviser Rachelle Miller, who previously told Four Corners about a consensual affair with her boss and subsequent bullying at his hands, today bravely shared some of the more harrowing details of their relationship, including Tudge physically kicking her out of bed as she answered early-morning media inquiries, swearing at her to “get the fuck out”, along with examples of his controlling behaviour. (Tudge rejects her characterisation of their affair.) To the surprise of many, the PM has asked Tudge to stand aside as minister, pending an investigation. That investigation, unfortunately, will be undertaken by the PM’s department, a place where inquiries go to die. The move is nevertheless an important one, and marks a change from Morrison’s usual approach. (Disgraced former attorney-general Christian Porter last night announced he is leaving politics, without having faced a single inquiry over serious rape allegations.) An optimist might hope that this change has something to do with Kate Jenkins’ disturbing report into parliamentary workplace culture. A pessimist might wonder how much it has to do with the impending election, and the warnings – from Miller, former staffers and women everywhere – that a backlash is coming.

In a morning press conference, Miller described the horrifying nature of her relationship with Tudge, which was “defined by a significant power imbalance”. “He shifted from praise … to belittling and criticising me,” she told reporters, in what sounds like textbook coercive control. “There were times where [Tudge] was kind … he became the only person I thought I could trust,” she said, noting that she woke up in the mornings “anxious and terrified about what was going to happen to me”. In a statement ahead of the presser, Miller also provided details of an incident in which Tudge kicked her out of his hotel room, where she had woken up naked after a night of drinking, during a work trip with then-PM Malcolm Turnbull. After a “furious” Tudge berated her for waking him, Miller returned to her room, dressed and started arranging his interviews for the day. “I could not remember a single thing from the night before,” she wrote of the encounter with the “family values” MP. “I don’t remember how we ended up in his room. I don’t remember leaving the bar. I don’t remember if we had sex. I didn’t know if we used protection. I still don’t.”

It seems unlikely Tudge will survive this politically, even if the investigation finds “in the negative”, as the PMO is wont to do. A previous Department of Finance investigation into the workplace affair and bullying allegations (which Miller notably did not participate in, on the advice of lawyers) found “insufficient evidence” to substantiate inappropriate behaviour – something Liberal women Jane Hume and Hollie “he said, she said” Hughes were eager to highlight this morning, even after hearing Miller’s more detailed account. But in this new era Tudge’s career is surely over, just as Porter’s should have been long before he pulled the pin himself.

But the prime minister must not escape scrutiny for his past conduct either. Miller claims that since going public with her story she tried “on many occasions” to speak to Morrison, who would not respond to her, and that going through the media was a last resort. “Not a single person from the Liberal Party contacted me to see if I was okay,” Miller said, noting she had been ostracised and ignored by the party. What’s more, “the PM’s men were out, briefing against me to the media”, she said, adding herself to the list of women – Julia Banks, Brittany Higgins and Gladys Berejiklian among them – who have now accused the PMO of backgrounding against them. (As Niki Savva revealed, his staffers are also accused of bullying, threatening and intimidating Bass MP Bridget Archer the previous time she threatened to cross the floor on the cashless welfare care legislation.)

Nonetheless, Morrison’s decision to stand Tudge aside is a welcome departure from his treatment of Porter, whom he steadfastly refused to question in any way, and whom he insisted was “an innocent man before the law”. (Today’s claim, that the action taken against Tudge should infer no conclusions, reveals the ludicrousness of the much touted “rule of law” defence.) The fact that it is Porter seeing himself out (most likely due to the threat of losing his seat) rather than because the PM took any action is as wrong as the fact that he lost the position of attorney-general due to defamation proceedings that he himself launched, or the fact that he lost his ministry over his use of a blind trust to help pay his legal fees. It remains deeply insulting, and is not something that women are going to forget quickly. With his continued support of Porter, Morrison trashed whatever was left of his credibility with women.

The Tudge matter is but one of the ways in which Morrison now has a chance to show leadership, and somewhat redeem himself for the litany of past failures. Former parliamentary staffers are today urging the government to implement all the recommendations in the Jenkins review (something Morrison has not yet committed to), and quickly. “After a year in which this prime minister’s words have rarely married up with his actions,” former Liberal adviser Chelsey Potter told Guardian Australia, “he has an opportunity to honour Brittany Higgins’ incredible advocacy.” Speaking on Fran Kelly’s final RN Breakfast this morning, Higgins said that Morrison’s word was “a little wobbly”. “We don’t know, when he gives an indication that he’s supportive of policy, that he’s actually going to commit to it,” she said. As Australian of the Year Grace Tame succinctly tweeted, “No more reviewing. It’s time for doing.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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