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‘He’s the most harmless individual’: Senator defends Leyonhjelm amid sexism row

‘He’s the most harmless individual’: Senator defends Leyonhjelm amid sexism row
07 Jul
8:56

Hume agrees Leyonhjelm took things too far. “David Leyonhjelm is the most harmless individual,” she says. “I don’t think he demonstrated particularly good judgment on this one. You shouldn’t talk about other people’s personal lives. I don’t care whether you’re male or female. Sarah was foolish to put it all on Hansard. She shouldn’t have made it a big deal.”

Other women in the Senate are also unmoved by the events of the week. Long-serving Labor senator Jacinta Collins says she is “less inclined to easily take offense at these things”. Yet she herself has been the victim of sexism that has been ingrained in Australian politics, and other workplaces, for decades.

“When I took leave to have my now 22-year-old, they were attempting to insist that it needed to be sick leave,” Collins says. “I suggested there was nothing about sickness associated with giving birth.”

One former parliamentarian who knows more than most about sexual innuendo and gossip is Cheryl Kernot, the former Democrats leader who had an affair with former foreign minister Gareth Evans and later joined the Labor Party.

The late Don Randall hinted at the relationship in a speech to Parliament in 1998, during which he infamously described Kernot as having “the morals of an alley cat on heat”. He later apologised, something Leyonhjelm is yet to do to Hanson-Young.

It irks Kernot that, 20 years on, she’s remembered more for those scandals than her contributions to policy such as parental leave.

“They remember the sexist slurs, so you get a bit defined by them,” she tells Fairfax Media. “Sarah Hanson-Young might be forever remembered as the woman who used ‘slut-shaming’. And we might just forget everything else that she’s done. And that seems to happen to women more than men.”

Kernot says she’s not sure if things are any better now than they were in the 1990s. “All we know is it still happens.”

Many lower house MPs who spoke to Fairfax Media for this story said they thought the situation was worse in the Senate, where representatives are not directly elected and circumstances give rise to long, late-night debates.

“People think there are no standards of conduct but there are,” says Terri Butler, shadow assistant minister for equality. She says Leyonhjelm’s remarks are “just not the sort of thing I think anyone in the House would say”.

Butler has experienced unpleasant gendered comments – all women have, she says. But she is glad to be in a chamber where the membership is generally more moderate.

“The House reflects majority views, the Senate reflects minority views,” she says. “If there is a small minority of Australians who are jerks, then there will be small minority of senators who are jerks.”

Hanson-Young told The Saturday Paper she believes the sexual smears she has put up with for so long have “gotten worse” over the past 18 months. Liberal MP and former minister Sussan Ley also told the paper she had been “the butt of nasty gossip”, but that it is not only directed at women and it is done for political purposes, not personal.

Leyonjelm says his shtick with Hume is all fun and games, just like his “bit of banter” with Liberal senator Anne Ruston. “Anne and I pretend to have an affair – it’s just a long running joke,” he says.

Leyonhjelm says he’s speaking with lawyers and insists they have not counselled him to say sorry. He says he is prepared to go to court if necessary.

A defamation suit would only extend the unedifying display that has generated headlines since last Thursday and, in the eyes of some MPs, brought Australian politics into disrepute more broadly.

“I feel very strongly that if we can’t stamp out this kind of behaviour in Australia’s Parliament, then what hope have we got for making sure women don’t have t put up witht his kind of behaviour in their workplaces?” asks Louise Pratt, a Labor senator from Western Australia.

“Sometimes you can be shocked by what’s said in Parliament and be offended. And we shouldn’t as women have to think up some kind of witty reply. Such behaviour should just be called out of order.”

Michael Koziol

Michael Koziol is the immigration and legal affairs reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House

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