The Politics    Friday, March 18, 2022

Politics, as usual

By Rachel Withers

Image of Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, who died from a suspected heart attack, aged 52, last week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, who died from a suspected heart attack, aged 52, last week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Internal political battles did not kill Kimberley Kitching, and there’s something deeply grotesque about suggesting that they did

It’s been hard to know how or whether to acknowledge the stories emerging surrounding the late Kimberley Kitching, and the alleged bullying the senator faced at the hands of her female colleagues – bullying that critics would have you believe contributed to her untimely death. The stories, which began on the pages of The Australian with reports that Kitching was feeling ostracised by Labor’s “mean girls” (her words, reportedly), have now spread across the media, with anonymous sources telling various outlets that Kitching told a workplace safety trainer she was being bullied. Conservative commentators have picked up the story and run with it – more than happy to exploit a woman’s tragic death to inflict some damage on Labor – and even breakfast television hosts are grilling Labor over the claims. There’s no doubt that the Labor Party has some internal issues that need to be addressed, and this should be done respectfully, at the appropriate time. But attempts by the right-wing media to link these allegations to Kitching’s heart attack – to turn this into a game of “what killed Kimberley Kitching?”– and to make this an issue of misogyny, in order to downplay the Coalition’s own issues, are deeply grotesque.

The links between Kitching’s work situation and her death are entirely speculative. (They also seem to have totally diverged from last week, when reports were proposing that it was Labor’s “faceless men” and a Labor Right preselection that contributed to her death.) But that hasn’t stopped the right from turning it into a chance to viciously persecute Labor’s most high-profile women. Most of these stories have not stated outright that these women drove Kitching to her death, although Sky News host Peta Credlin came very close in perhaps the most egregious coverage. (“Was Labor senator Kimberley Kitching hounded to her death?” Credlin asked provocatively, adding that it was hard not to conclude her treatment was a “contributing factor”.) But the implication is clearly there in almost all of the coverage, from Sharri Markson’s “mean girls” piece on down, with most framing the bullying and the heart attack as cause and effect. The Daily Telegraph has today joined in with a front page featuring former Labor MP Emma Husar, who says the bullying she faced caused her to develop a heart condition. (“Labor nearly killed me,” the front page reads, though Husar doesn’t use those words in the article.) The derogatory “mean girls” epithet, meanwhile, has been used again and again, with journalists using the fact that Kitching reportedly referred to her colleagues that way to justify headlining pieces with “‘Mean girl’ Penny breaks silence on sledge”.

Coalition MPs have also been eager to play into this “hounding to death” narrative, especially if it means landing a few blows on their enemies. Speaking on 2GB yesterday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton described Kitching as a dear friend, adding that he knew from their “private” conversations that she had been under a lot of stress. “The decisions that have been made by people like Kristina Keneally and Penny Wong” had been “quite a deliberate course of action,” he said. One Nation’s Pauline Hanson, meanwhile, has leapt at the chance to take swipes at “nasty piece of work” Penny Wong, talking about how “downtrodden” Kitching was.

Then there are the cheap efforts of the Coalition and its supporters to make this issue into a “women problem”, turning allegations of misogyny back onto the ALP in order to imply it has no place calling the government out on such things (as if factional brawling is the same things as rape and harassment). Suggestions that this is an issue of sexism are ludicrous – though of course many of those prosecuting the case know this. The Australian has today published an editorial entitled “Political hypocrisy exposed”, insisting that Labor’s criticism of the Coalition’s women problem was now worth nil (without bothering to make a case that this alleged bullying was motivated by sexism), while wheeling out the usual suspects, including outgoing MP Nicolle Flint, to rail against the ALP’s alleged treatment of her. Some Coalition women, meanwhile, have been out publicly abusing former Liberal MP Julia Banks (for daring to suggest the coverage itself has been gendered), while somehow still claiming to be opposed to bullying.

The fact that Prime Minister Scott Morrison thinks these allegations of bullying must be looked into, when he was not willing to so much as read the allegations of rape against Christian Porter, yet alone look into them, has done many people’s heads in.

Of course, Labor does have some questions to ask itself here, especially when it comes to how preselections and factional disputes are handled. Labor frontbenchers have this week been walking a fine line, paying tribute to Kitching while gently downplaying rumours of bullying. After a week of rejecting the need for an inquiry, deputy leader Richard Marles last night said the party would be assessing its internal culture in “an ongoing way”, but would not “get into that debate now” (a suggestion from The Australian that he was “using eulogies” to avoid questions was rejected as “offensive”). After a few days of gently rejecting claims of bullying when put to them, the female senators in question have today released a statement firmly denying them, noting that the “hurtful” comments had made it impossible for them to remain silent, as much as they wanted to out of respect.

It’s not okay that Senator Kitching felt bullied by her colleagues, nor that many others in politics clearly do too, as we learnt from the latest Jenkins review. But questions about what happened to her should be asked at the appropriate time and in an appropriate way, without grotesque public insinuations that “mean girls”, with very little right of respectful reply, had bullied her to death. There are a dizzying number of political agendas at play here, but the predominant one seems to be focused on doing as much damage as possible to Labor ahead of the election – a depressing sign of just how despicable this campaign is going to get.

Is this what Kitching would have wanted? Is this what her family and friends want right now? It’s hard to say, with none speaking on the public record. It’s clear that some of her political allies have their own agendas, and are speaking through intermediaries. Some of the allegations now being aired were reportedly shared with journalists by Kitching herself, who was clearly a vivacious and well-connected figure in Canberra. But it’s not clear if or under what circumstances journalists were invited to put them on the public record. Perhaps it might be best to end with Kitching’s own words here – words she did use on the public record, unlike many of the other comments now being circulated by conservative journalists. As Kitching tweeted in 2018 during reports of Greens bullying issues: “Every party has internal drama but you can’t solve a bullying saga with more bullying.”

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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