The Morrison government has furthered its efforts to turn this moment of feminist outcry back on the Opposition, insisting that the issue is not about politics while attempting to make it as much about Labor as possible. After days of allusions to “the member for Maribyrnong” and suggestions about people in glass houses throwing stones, the government has found its symbol: retiring Boothby MP Nicolle Flint, who last night attacked Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and senior Labor women for speaking out against rape and sexual harassment but not speaking out against her harassment at the 2019 election. “I say to the leader of the Opposition,” she said in a tearful adjournment speech, echoing Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech, “I will not be lectured by you. I will not be lectured by your side of politics about the treatment of women in this place.” Flint said that Albanese had “crawled down into the gutter” to make this issue about politics, before going on to say that Labor was responsible for “the environment in which hate could flourish” around her, singling out fellow South Australian Penny Wong, in particular, for not standing up for her.
Flint’s speech – which did not go Gillard-level viral, despite the best efforts of a number of conservatives on Twitter – was amplified by the prime minister in a press conference this morning, following what Guardian Australia’s Paul Karp noted seemed like a planned question from Nine’s Chris Uhlmann (a PMO staff member indicated to call on him). “I think she’s incredibly brave,” Morrison said, reluctantly turning his attention away from the crisis in Papua New Guinea. “I just am amazed at the Labor Party and the unions and GetUp! just standing by to let that happen.” Morrison had foreshadowed the speech and strategy in Question Time yesterday, using a question from Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek as to why he hadn’t read the letter detailing allegations against Christian Porter to ask why she in return hadn’t called out Flint’s treatment, suggesting Flint “feared for her own safety from the members of the Labor Party”.
Flint’s words have now received plenty of attention across the media, with stories across the mainstream press quoting her calls for Labor to get its own house in order, while Wong and Albanese are walking a fine line, criticising the treatment but knowing they cannot criticise Flint too harshly, despite the fact that Labor was not responsible for the abuse and threats she received. (There are also questions around how involved GetUp! was, with Flint’s harasser “linked” to the activist group only by Facebook likes.) Wong pushed back against suggestions that Labor was responsible for the behaviour of individuals, while being careful to acknowledge that what happened was “utterly unacceptable”, calling it out as asked. “It is also unfair of her to seek to tie me and Tanya Plibersek to it,” she added, asking reporters, “do you honestly believe that I would be part of a campaign of that kind of harassment and targeting of a woman?” Albanese was quick to condemn the treatment Flint had been subjected to, noting that some of the same groups had also targeted Labor MPs and gently suggesting her comments were political, before condemning her treatment again. (Plibersek wasn’t able to respond until the end of Question Time yesterday, saying she was unaware of GetUp’s harassment until recently, and had contacted Flint to wish her the best upon hearing of her retirement.) Labor finds itself in a bind, unable to criticise the tearful woman but also unable to defend itself.
What happened to Flint was appalling, and she is correct in saying that women’s safety ought to be “above politics”. But her speech, with its echoes of Gillard’s, has very quickly become about just that, and it’s galling to watch someone cry politicisation while engaged in blatant politicisation themselves. (One could say that if the member for Boothby wants to know what partisanship looks like, she doesn’t need a motion, she needs a mirror.) In professing to care about harassment, Flint is attacking the leader who acknowledges the problem within his own party and actually went to Monday’s March 4 Justice, while praising the guy who didn’t. Flint appears to be furious at Labor for condemning the very serious allegations against the Coalition, simply because they didn’t speak up about what happened to her – treatment that may have had less to do with her being a woman and more to do with her hardline conservatism. (It’s important to mention here that the graffitiing of her office was gendered in nature.) As Samantha Maiden noted today, Flint’s original account of what she faced in 2019 didn’t mention the ALP at all. So why now?
Something unacceptable happened to Flint at the 2019 election (I’m beginning to sound like Albanese here myself), but that was not Labor’s fault, and smearing Penny Wong won’t make the allegations against Christian Porter disappear. Crying politicisation won’t change the fact that the allegations currently on the table are all on the right side of politics. For now.
Nicolle Flint did make some very important comments in her speech (even if she did contradict many of them) about not politicising this issue, and the importance of condemning harassment and abuse – even, or especially, when it comes from within one’s own ranks. Labor has spent the past few days promising that it will take any fresh allegations that might arise seriously: Albanese and Plibersek are urging women inside the party to come forward, following reports of anonymous allegations of harassment and abuse in a private Facebook group, while the manager of Opposition business, Tony Burke, says any male Labor MP accused should stand aside while an investigation is carried out. But we are yet to see what will happen if the current Labor leadership is faced with a named allegation within its ranks.
Flint is right. This issue ought to be above politics. Perhaps Flint and Morrison could show us what that looks like.