LABOR deputy-leader Tanya Plibersek has launched a stern warning about the “shocking” error in disclosing the complainant’s identity in the sexual harassment complaint against the former Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.
“This sends the worst possible message to women who've been subjected to sexual harassment,” Ms Plibersek said to media today in Canberra in suggesting the complainant was also “collateral damage” due to political infighting within the Coalition.
National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) President Fiona Simson accused the Nationals of leaking sensitive details of the sexual assault allegation, made by prominent agricultural identity Catherine Marriott, which prompted Mr Joyce’s resignation as Nationals leader.
Ms Simson made the politically charged statement on social media about the alleged breach of confidentiality after it was revealed Ms Marriot was behind the untested and unproven claim, which eventually forced Mr Joyce’s move to step down last Friday.
The New England MP’s decision to quit the leadership and Deputy Prime Minister’s post came after weeks of relentless media pressure and political scrutiny, following revelations of his affair with former media adviser Vikki Campion who worked in his office of Agriculture and Water Resources Minister following the 2016 federal election.
Ms Marriott is a well-regarded and respected identity in Australian agriculture and a former WA Rural Woman of the Year winner.
She was also announced late last year as the WA Project Manager for the CRC for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA) which has $75 million in Commonwealth funding over 10 years to invest in areas like farm research.
It’s understood Ms Marriott took her concerns initially to senior WA Nationals members, including leader Mia Davies, which were discussed among elected members in various party room meetings, over several days.
Those discussions were also behind the WA National’s decision to make a strong public statement last week indicating they didn’t support Mr Joyce continuing on as the federal leader due to the damage it was causing to the party’s brand.
Ms Plibersek said the Nationals had said they were “confident” that the disclosure of the woman’s identity, in the complaint against the former Deputy Prime Minister, did not come from the party.
She said Victorian federal Nationals MP Andrew Broad had said “similar things yesterday, that this didn’t come from the National Party, it came from the Liberal Party”.
But the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull needs to reassure the parliament today that neither he nor his office nor any Liberal Member of parliament, nor their staff, made the complainant’s identity public, she said.
“This sends the worst possible message to women who've been subjected to sexual harassment,” she said.
“First of all, Barnaby Joyce says ‘look, if there's a problem here the woman should go to the police’.
“Sexual assault and sexual harassment are both very serious, but they’re different.
“Sexual assault should be immediately reported to the police.
“Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is often dealt with within organisations through formal procedures that in most cases guarantee that complaints can be made confidentially and the identities of complainants can be kept confidential.
“In fact, when the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was asked about this yesterday, they said they would never make the identity of a complainant public without her consent.”
Ms Plibersek said it was “accepted practice” that such complaints can be kept confidential.
“Because if you don’t have that degree of confidentiality, victims are much less likely to come forward, other women won't make complaints when they see someone like this complainant, collateral damage in a political fight between the Liberals and Nationals,” she said.
“This has been a sterling example of exactly how not to deal with a sexual harassment complaint within an organisation, and the Prime Minister has to answer for who has leaked this woman's identity to the media.
“I think it is shocking in the extreme that her identity has been made public without her consent.
“I think it will discourage other women from making similar complaints and it is completely, completely unacceptable behaviour.”
NFF Support ‘100pc’
Despite the intense political sensitivity underpinning the issue, Ms Simson backed Ms Marriott’s character in relation to the allegation - which Mr Joyce has vigorously denied - on social media at the weekend which ignited significant debate and response; in particular amongst members of the farming community.
“Catherine Marriott is undeniably one of the most fair dinkum people I know,” Ms Simson said on Twitter.
“She is generous, passionate and honest.
“Whatever she says goes.
“She wanted to give the Nats a chance to sort it out and they leaked instead.”
While the naming of Ms Marriot triggered an outpouring on social media in defence of her integrity, some sources have also warned there'd been a rush to judgment, given the allegations against Mr Joyce were still unproven.
“The NFF should just stay out if,” a source said.
When asked if she had any actual proof that the leak came from within the Nationals, Ms Simson said “Of course not - I know none of the details”.
“But if MAZ (Ms Marriott) says she requested that the matter be treated confidentially then I 100pc believe her,” she said.
Of course. That’s what she asked for - for the due process to be conducted confidentially. I’m not determining anyone guilty but happy to stand by MAZ and without knowing any details know that she must have had a reason for doing what she did. https://t.co/xw8sjT4Jnt— Fiona Simson (@afsnsw) February 24, 2018
Mr Broad - a former NFF Vice President - later claimed a Liberal MP also had access to the letter which detailed the sexual harassment complaint; opening the possibility of an alternative source for the leak.
However, he declined to name the individual who had access to the complaint.
“I've made some investigation of my own and I believe the due processes of the National Party have held, have been very thorough and the leaks have not come from the National Party,” he told ABC television.
“I know of a Liberal MP who had access to that letter when we had not seen it.”
NFF CEO Tony Mahar declined an opportunity to speak to Fairfax Media about the issue in an interview but he said on Twitter - in backing Ms Simson but not asserting the actual source of the leak as being the Nationals - “Whatever has occurred here needs sorting immediately by those in control”.
“This can’t be tolerated,” he said.
“We stand together behind an inspirational and courageous leader in #AusAg.”
Ms Marriott released a statement after she was identified in a media report at the weekend, confirming she was behind the allegation made against Mr Joyce.
“On February 20, 2018, I wrote a formal letter of complaint to the Federal Executive of the National Party outlining an allegation of sexual harassment against Barnaby Joyce,” she said.
“I want to stress that I never intended for this issue to become public.
“I requested that a formal and confidential investigation into this incident be undertaken by the National Party to ensure there is accountability in relation to the incident I raise, and to prevent this type of inappropriate behaviour towards women in the future.
“This complaint was not made solely to address the incident against me - it is about speaking up against inappropriate behaviour by people in powerful positions.
“I will await the outcome of this investigation before determining any future action or commenting further.”
Nationals federal director Ben Hindmarsh said “The National Party of Australia has at all times adhered strictly to the terms of confidentiality in the formal complaint”.
“We are taking the complaint seriously and acting on it in an appropriate and timely manner,” he said.
“All complaints are taken seriously and treated with strict confidentiality and given due process.”
When the story broke of the claim last Thursday in national media, a spokesperson for Mr Joyce said he was aware of the new allegation.
“Mr Joyce said he had been made indirectly aware and described the claims as spurious and defamatory,” the spokesperson said.
“He said allegations of wrongdoing should be immediately referred to police so that the veracity of any claim could be properly tested.”
Nationals Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie said as acting leader of the Nationals - at the time - she had been made aware that a formal complaint had been received by the National Party organisation.
“I am not aware of the details of the complaint,” she said.
“I understand the matter is being dealt with by the Federal organisation.
“But if the matter is criminal in nature I encourage the complainant to refer details to the police.”
In speaking to media in Armidale to announce he was stepping down as leader, Mr Joyce said the “current cacophony of issues has to be put aside...and I think it's my responsibility to do my bit to make sure that it happens”.
“Now, might I say, with the last allegation that was in the paper today, I have asked that that be referred to the police.
“I've asked for the right of the person who's made the allegation and I've asked for my right of defence that that be referred to the police.
“But it's quite evident that you can't go to the Despatch Box (in parliament) with issues like that surrounding you.
“So, I can't enter into any discussions about that.
“If it is going to be before the courts, it is going to be before the courts, you would understand.
“But I will say on Monday morning at the party room, I will step down as the leader of the National Party and deputy leader of Australia.
“I have informed the acting Prime Minister, Mathias Cormann, of this. I informed my colleagues of this.”
Fairfax Media has also reported today that it understands a lawyer for the Nationals has requested a group of rural women who have concerns over Mr Joyce's behaviour at functions detail any complaints they have so the party executive can assess them.
Mr Hindmarsh has been contacted for further comment on that matter.
Ms Davies has not returned calls from Fairfax Media, or Ms Marriott.
Queensland federal Nationals MP Michelle Landry said to reporters in Canberra today “I've spoken to the hierarchy in the party and the leak didn't come from us”.
Agricultural sector sources have said they were aware Ms Marriot was weighing up whether to take action on the allegations against Mr Joyce, and has held ongoing discussions seeking advice over a period of time, which has intensified in recent weeks.
Fairfax Agricultural Media was also made aware on Thursday last week - before the story was revealed in national media - of Ms Marriot’s complaint to the Nationals but the source of that information was not from any political party.
Ms Marriott is also a former Executive Officer of the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association (KPCA) and has engaged Lawyer Emma Salerno to handle the matters relating to the allegations, who is also Vice Chair of the Association.