Politics

Everything We Learnt From Last Night’s Explosive ‘4 Corners’ On Liberal Party Sexual Misconduct

Attorney-General Christian Porter is now threatening legal action, claiming the episode was defamatory.

'4 Corners' airs explosive episode about sexual misconduct by federal Liberal MPs

Liberal MP and Attorney-General Christian Porter has said he’s “considering legal options” after Monday’s Four Corners report on sexual misconduct within the Liberal party.

Porter was the focus of much of the report by Louise Milligan, though his own alleged sexism and affair with a staffer are presented as just one example.

The episode featured interviews with ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, ex-NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, and NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Anna Fierravanti-Wells, who all described an insidious sexist culture within the “Canberra bubble” that extends well beyond the Coalition’s lackluster number of female MPs.

In the episode, Turnbull says the public sector’s culture towards women is comparable to that of the law and private section “40 years ago”. He also reveals that the “bonk ban” he instituted in 2018 wasn’t just due to Barnaby Joyce’s much-publicised affair, but was also aimed at Porter and MP Alan Tudge.

Both Porter and Tudge are married men who campaign hard on traditional family values — as Turnbull quips, they were also interested in “traditional adultery”.

In the Four Corners episode, we see Tudge speak in parliament against same-sex marriage during the 2017 plebiscite, on the basis that marriage is a sacred act of commitment between a man and a woman.

“There’s no question that some of the most trenchant opponents of same-sex marriage, all in the name of traditional marriage, were at the same time enthusiastic practitioners of traditional adultery,” he said.

In 2017, Porter was given a warning by then-PM Turnbull after he was seen canoodling with a staffer (who wasn’t his wife) in a Canberra bar.

The Four Corners episode argues that these affairs with staffers working underneath them are within the public interest to know, as they reveal moral hypocrisy, wouldn’t be accepted within most other industries, and can put MPs in compromising positions where they would be susceptible to blackmail.

“I had a meeting with Porter in my office and I told him that I had had reports of him being out in public, having had too much to drink and in the company with young women,” Turnbull said.

“He acknowledged that; he didn’t argue with that. And I just said, ‘Look, this is unacceptable conduct for a cabinet minister and it exposes you to the risk of compromise.'”

Shortly after, Porter was promoted to attorney general — a move questioned by viewers on social media, and subsequently called out by journalist Jan Fran on Q&A, where she appeared alongside Turnbull.

The episode also spent considerable time delving into Porter’s attitude towards women, with barrister Kathleen Foley, who attended university with him in the ’90s, describing Porter as a “misogynist” who belittled women whenever he could.

“For all of that time I’ve known him to be someone who was, in my opinion, based on what I saw, deeply sexist and actually misogynist in his treatment of women, in the way he spoke about women,” said Foley.

“They were treated as a joke; they were objects of ridicule. The only point to women, as far as I could tell from Christian’s way of treating women, was for him to hit on them, or for women to be made fun of, particularly for the way that they looked.”

In response, Porter issued a statement after the episode apologising for comments he made in a law magazine while at university, and expressed “surprise” that Foley would remember him before “categorically rejecting” claims about flirting with a staffer in a bar.

He also claims that he was never contacted by Milligan — something Milligan denies, saying the program (while not Milligan directly) gave Porter two weeks to respond.

He ends the statement by saying he believes the program was defamatory, and will potentially sue.

Also featured in the episode was ex-Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller, who reveals she had a consensual affair with Tudge in 2017 — something she now regrets.

“Where there’s significant power imbalances with senior ministers and perhaps junior staff, I think that absolutely there needs to be an acknowledgement that that sort of behaviour is not OK,” she said.

Miller describes internalising a view that she, via the affair, had become a liability for the party, and understood that she was “damaged goods” that needed to be shuffled and demoted —  she now feels as though her time in politics is over. She told Four Corners she was coming forward now as she feels she “let down” a lot of women working in parliament who are enduring a sexist environment.

“I don’t feel like there’s equality in the Liberal Party at the moment and it’s really concerning for me,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons why I’ve thought recently seriously about giving up my membership of the Liberal Party… There’s plenty of women working in staffing roles in Parliament at the moment but, the experience is, you need to be like a male to cope, to survive.”

In 2018, Scott Morrison introduced a conduct standards code for ministers which explicitly bans politicians from romantic or sexual relations with staffers. According to Four Corners Executive Producer Sally Neighbour, this is why the episode focuses on Liberal politicians — and she promises the show’s “work”  on this story isn’t finished.

Immediately after the episode, The Australian’s Editor-at-Large, Paul Kelly, appeared on Q&A, saying the episode “redefined” what was in the public interest.

Prior to airing, several politicians called the ABC hoping to block the episode from airing, resulting in a senate inquiry on Monday into the journalistic integrity of the episode.

You can watch the episode on iView and below.