Jamie Clements saga: The politics of sexual harassment a bipartisan affair

Sexism and other forms of disrespect against women can only be eradicated if all our community leaders, including the two at the top, actively repudiate those behaviours.

If there were ever any doubts the ALP suffers the same endemic sexism that wracks the conservative parties, they were dispelled yesterday by the sordid saga that culminated in the resignation of NSW Labor general secretary Jamie Clements.

The top party machine operative had no choice but to go when the woman who lodged a complaint against him six months ago finally went to the media with details of what she alleges occurred.

Stefanie Jones, a Labor staffer and former candidate, went public after agreeing to drop an application for an apprehended violence order against Clements in return for him signing a formal undertaking not to approach her for 12 months.

Jones recounted that Clements tried to physically intimidate her, locking the door of the room they were in and demanding that she kiss him because “you know you want to”.

Clements has denied this version of events, but his case was irreparably damaged when Jones publicly accused him of aggressive behaviour as well as making an unwanted sexual advance.

This sets Clements’s actions apart from the “inappropriate” behaviour of former minister Jamie Briggs, which was just as unacceptable but about which there was no allegation of intimidation and no AVO.

If the ALP had not moved swiftly to remove Clements, his ongoing presence in senior Labor organisational ranks would have cast a considerable cloud over any commitments made by Labor leader Bill Shorten to oppose violence against women. Shorten was due to share the stage with Clements at the NSW Labor State Conference in Sydney next month.

Shorten’s domestic violence policy credentials may have survived the Clements matter, but the same can’t be said of Labor’s planned campaign to pursue Briggs for distributing photos of the woman who made the complaint against him, and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton over his sexist SMS once Parliament resumes.

Taking turns as acting Opposition Leader during early January, Labor’s two most senior women, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong, led the charge against Briggs after his resignation was announced. They would likely have been prominent ongoing critics of Briggs and Dutton, and it’s a shame their acting duties were concluded before either had the opportunity to comment on the Clements matter.

Shorten did reflect on the allegations, forcefully calling for a report into the incident, but squibbing on the question of Clements’s future tenure.

It took two former Labor Premiers, followed by acting NSW Labor leader, Linda Burney, to create the momentum for Clements’s resignation. Burney noted that while the allegations were disputed, the matter had to be “resolved now in the interests of the party and its members”.

Shorten also reportedly called Clements and asked him to resign, after initially asking his chief of staff to make a similar call.

The swiftness of action taken against Clements is commendable, but it’s hard not to conclude that it was also intended to shut down another – equally concerning – complaint raised by Jones when she went rogue.

The young staffer claimed in retrospect she wouldn’t have made the complaint against Clements because it had been soul-destroying. She claimed to have dropped the application for an AVO because of lack of support from the ALP’s leadership and ongoing victim-shaming from some of her colleagues.

According to Jones, everyone wanted it “under the carpet” and one senior party official called her fiancé to ask what it would take to “make this go away”:

There’s such a lack of support (and) as long as the party has people like (that in it), the filth … the continuation of disgusting treatment of women will continue.

Jones’s experience appears to align with the findings of an internal party review fo the NSW Labor Party’s culture and treatment of women. The review reportedly found that:

Issues identified in the party include: women being given less prestigious roles than men, sexualised environments being accepted (sex stories, use of crude descriptions for women, reference to women’s presumed sexual history) and denigration of women on the basis of marital status or for not having children.

This is the bigger issue for Labor – having a culture that is hostile to women. But it is equally an issue for the Coalition, with the Liberal Party having received a similarly private but leaked report that found women in its ranks have to deal with numerous barriers including a “boys’ club” culture, chauvinistic behaviour, and party processes designed to perpetuate the power of those who hold political positions (namely men).

It is with these reports in mind that Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten should be responding to incidents such as those alleged to have been perpetrated by Briggs and Clements. When Briggs resigned, Turnbull’s media release stated only that he was “disappointed” in the former minister’s behaviour, although he sharpened his criticism the following day to note that it was a “serious” matter.

These mealy-mouthed offerings are nearly as non-committal as Shorten only calling for a report into the Clements’s incident.

Sexism and other forms of disrespect against women can only be eradicated if all our community leaders, including the two at the top, actively repudiate those behaviours.

In both cases, Turnbull and Shorten should have said that if found to be true, this behaviour is unacceptable, will not be tolerated and will attract the highest possible penalty, that is, resignation.

Their kid-gloves response to the issue so far is a disservice and an affront to all Australian women.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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