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Australia’s Struggle With ‘Bonk Bans’ and ‘Manterruptions’

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SYDNEY, Australia — It may go down here as the “manterruption” of the year.

In the wake of a television investigation that revealed allegations of sexism and inappropriate behavior in Australia’s ruling Liberal Party, Anne Ruston, the minister for families and social services, was asked at a news conference on Tuesday what it’s like to be a woman in Parliament.

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who appeared at her side, just couldn’t seem to let her answer the question.

Before she could speak a full sentence, Mr. Morrison jumped in to criticize a term used to describe a rule introduced by his predecessor in 2018 that prohibited sexual relations between staff and ministers. The term: “bonk ban,” which he insisted made light of a serious issue.

He carried on at full paternal volume, apparently without noticing that he had cut her off. When he was done, he gestured to her to carry on.

“It’s stunning,” said Nina Funnell, a leading Australian activist for survivors of sexual assault and harassment. “It’s stunning how oblivious he is to the way in which his own behavior reproduces the very problem that they are there to discuss, which is obvious systemic gender inequality.”

For many, Mr. Morrison had revealed himself to be exactly the kind of leader that many women had suspected: a bloke’s bloke who assumes he knows what’s best and works hard to protect his mates even if they are accused of misconduct.

Almost immediately, the video clip of his interruption took off online. In comments on Facebook, hundreds of women expressed exasperation.

“There he goes again, butting in with that arrogant dad voice,” one wrote.

“The arrogance of this is so frustrating,” wrote another.

Mr. Morrison was addressing the accusations against two senior leaders — Attorney General Christian Porter and Alan Tudge, the population minister. Mostly he dismissed the claims as old news, noting that the alleged behavior had occurred before he became prime minister in 2018 through an intraparty revolt.

“They relate to circumstances that occurred that were pertinent to the prime minister at the time,” he said, adding that there would be no additional investigation from his government.

“These things happen in Australia,” he declared. “People do things and they regret them.”

The report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s leading investigative program, “Four Corners,” emerged only after intense government pressure to kill the episode, according to producers. The investigation cited six eyewitnesses who said they had seen Mr. Porter kissing and cuddling a young woman at a bar in Canberra in 2017.

The prime minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, said he had warned Mr. Porter — who was married and has campaigned on family values — that his behavior was unacceptable, opening him up to the risk of blackmail.

Mr. Porter, a father of two who is still the attorney general, has denied having an affair. He and his wife announced their separation in January.

ImageAttorney General Christian Porter has denied having an affair. He and his wife have separated.
Credit…Mick Tsikas/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Tudge’s case involved an affair in 2017 with Rachelle Miller, who was a Liberal Party adviser. Ms. Miller told “Four Corners” that it had been consensual. Mr. Tudge acknowledged the affair and expressed regret.

But Ms. Miller said he had pressured her to keep it secret, and that while he was promoted to the cabinet, she was blacklisted by the Liberal Party. She recently filed a formal complaint that accuses him of workplace bullying and intimidation that left her “anxious and afraid” in a system that failed to support her.

Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University who worked for the government in Canberra from 2005 to 2008, said the allegations against both men — and Mr. Morrison’s response — all point once again to Australia’s willingness to let government institutions be run like gentleman’s clubs of yesteryear.

The culture, she said, prioritizes protection for the powerful over professionalism for all.

“It’s what someone called a mate-ocracy,” Professor Harris-Rimmer said. “It depends on who is doing it. There’s a deference to privacy, and there’s something to be said for that, but it creates an idea that the workplace is different and special, and normal rules don’t apply.”

Credit…David Gray/Getty Images

Professor Harris-Rimmer said that even compared to many of its developed peers, Australia remained a step or 10 behind. Mr. Morrison, she added, ought to look to Britain, where Parliament requested an independent study in 2015 on how to make the legislative body more inclusive and professional.

The final report listed 43 recommendations focused on equality of participation, infrastructure and culture. Among other things, it has led to some improvements for women, including an allowance of proxy voting during parental leave.

“We need to have our version of ‘The Good Parliament’ report,” Professor Harris-Rimmer said. “It was an effort to think about Parliament as an exemplary workplace — and we’ve never done that.”

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