What to do when desperately trying to keep your government from sinking in a mire of salacious scandal brought on by Barnaby Joyce’s sordid and hypocritical personal life?
Malcolm Turnbull’s solution is a new “code of conduct” for government ministers, which bans them, married or single, from having any sexual relationships with staffers.
Many commentators have welcomed this. For instance, Ben Eltham in New Matilda wrote that it is a “positive move”.
I see nothing positive in it. Turnbull made a dangerous slide, one which many in the media go along with, in his reasoning for this code. The current ministerial code of conduct, he said, “does not speak strongly enough to … values of respect, or respectful workplaces. Of workplaces where women are respected”.
There’s no doubt a lack of respect for women is endemic among the Canberra political elite. But Turnbull’s reasoning implies that you can’t have sex with a woman and respect her. There are many ways women are treated with disrespect other than having sex, many of which are more insidious and difficult to codify. This ban does not even try to address those issues.
It also assumes no woman would ever want to have sex with a man senior to her. Issues of consent, of actual respect, are trampled, not addressed, by this blanket intrusion into personal lives.
Clearly, there are many power imbalances in the hierarchies of ministers and staff, and in workplaces in general. And clearly anyone who stands for women’s rights should defend their right not to be coerced by a sexual partner or accused of getting favours because she is in a relationship with her senior.
But all that is needed is a simple code whereby a couple can ask that their respective roles in a hierarchy are changed so there is no direct line of control or submission.
Perhaps such an open rule would have saved Vicki Campion from insinuations that she got jobs she did not deserve. And actual sexual harassment or coercion, which is implied by talk of power relationships, is already illegal.
Ministers’ staffers are on six-figure salaries; they back the politics of their superiors and share their goals of staying in government. Women in these positions are in a much stronger position to stand up for themselves than most workers.
But even where women are at their least powerful, a ban on consensual sex between women and men in different positions of authority takes away women’s control over their lives.
A few days before, in response to this kind of ban in the US, Turnbull had correctly said, “Adults can conduct their relationships, if it’s consensual, respectful, that’s their right”.
Why the change of sentiment? Josh Bornstein, a lawyer writing in the Age, put it in context:
“The reason workplaces are cracking down on consensual sex has little to do with the welfare of their workers, it’s all to do with their own brand – and Turnbull is no different. His response must be seen as a reaction to the media pile-on and moral panic that ensued after Joyce's relationship with Campion was made public.”
The AFL forced out two managers last year for having consensual sex with women working under them. The chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, justified the men’s departure, in Bornstein’s words, by “invoking the lamentable language of public relations advisers, [making] clear that the relationships were ‘inappropriate’ and the two managers duly released carefully curated statements of mea culpa and ‘key learnings’”.
Did anyone care what the women thought about their consensual relationships? Why were the men – both married – sacked? Not for sexual harassment or abuse, but purely and simply for adultery. This, and rules about who can sleep with whom, in the guise of seeking respect for women, are reactionary and should be rejected.
As Bornstein points out, it is not illegal to commit adultery, or to have consensual sex with your boss. But it is rightly illegal for bosses to sack workers for legal sexual activity. It should stay that way.
Turnbull might think he has taken some feminist high moral ground, a bonus while trying to keep his government standing.
But his code, rather than dealing with real questions of how to manage real issues of accountability and perceived conflicts of interest, instead denies women any agency.
It equates heterosexual sex with lack of respect for a woman and does absolutely nothing to change the power imbalances created by an overwhelmingly male cabinet and male dominance of government circles. The same will apply if companies follow his lead.
He should not be granted one iota of credit for this desperate attempt to look like he’s doing something about disrespect for women when the motivation was to shore up his crisis-racked government.