Risks of ministerial affairs justify public scrutiny

Risks of ministerial affairs justify public scrutiny

In the corporate world, affairs between executives or senior managers and their more junior staff have long been considered unacceptable behaviour. But it seems the same principle has been slower to filter through to the world of Canberra politics.

The federal government has been roiled this week by a report on the ABC’s Four Corners program that two cabinet ministers, Alan Tudge and Christian Porter, had acted inappropriately with ministerial staff several years ago. Mr Tudge’s affair was with his staffer Rachelle Miller, who was also married; while Mr Porter was alleged to have had a liaison with an unidentified woman, believed to be employed by another minister, at a Canberra bar. Mr Porter has categorically rejected the program’s depiction of events at the bar, and says the woman involved has also denied it.

Some argue that these issues were private and should not have been aired on national television. Before the program was broadcast, Coalition ministers contacted ABC management and questioned whether the program was in the public interest.

The Age believes that the issue of the boys’ culture of Canberra – and especially the difficulty staffers face if they raise complaints – are of public interest. It is a pity the program went beyond these issues into tut-tutting about Mr Porter’s antics in his university days. The moralising tone assuming women must always be victims in such consensual affairs was odd in 2020.

The ABC likely justified their decision to explore the topic in part due to the crassly-coined “bonk ban” instituted by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in the wake of Barnaby Joyce’s affair with his staff member, Vikki Campion. In announcing the banning of relationships between ministers and staff, Mr Turnbull sought to address the inherent imbalance in relationships between a boss, almost always male, and a junior staffer, almost always female, whose career path is less assured. The situation creates a fundamental conflict. Ms Miller, who was moved from Mr Tudge’s office, demoted and then left politics, has lodged a suit against Mr Tudge for workplace bullying and intimidation.

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