Well, hasn’t it been a busy week or so for NSW Minister John Della Bosca and his wife, Federal backbencher MP Belinda Neal?
Of course, for the last few days we’ve only been hearing about her, despite Della Bosca’s documented history of multiple traffic offences leading to a revoked driving license and allegations that he was part of the alleged drunken and abusive behaviour in a Central Coast nightclub last weekend.
Last month Della Bosca’s licence was revoked for six months following a series of speeding offences, after which he reportedly swore at a newspaper photographer for taking pictures of him riding a bicycle.
Perhaps the newspapers are a bit bored with Della Bosca’s temper, plus although people like to lampoon him he’s simply not that easy a target for anything more (such as collecting a political scalp for the editor’s wall), due to the degree of power he wields in the NSW Labor party. But his wife doesn’t have the same powerbase behind her, and besides – a woman with a filthy temper, there’s a news story with legs – cue hordes of gleefully chortling editors. Neal’s excesses have made the international newspapers now, which gives us a very pithy summary of the key points that are being latched onto for the news cycle:
Minister sent for anger therapy
An Australian politician who told a pregnant rival that her baby could be born a demon was ordered to seek anger counselling after a string of allegations about her behaviour.
Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, interrupted his official visit to Japan to rebuke Belinda Neal, a member of his centre-left government, ordering her to improve her behaviour and warning her about her political future.
His intervention came after a string of media reports about Ms Neal, including her comments to Sophie Mirabella, revelations that she was suspended from a football team for kicking a fallen opponent and allegations that she threatened and abused restaurant staff.
“I’ve said to her that there appears to be a pattern of unacceptable behaviour,” Mr Rudd told reporters in Tokyo.
Ms Neal is married to the New South Wales state minister and political powerbroker John Della Bosca. She narrowly won her seat for the Labor Party in the lower House of Representatives at last November’s national election. She told reporters in Sydney that she had agreed to anger management counselling. “I think frankly that it will be a good thing,” she said. (Reuters)
It certainly seems that a lot of people, not all of them political rivals or opponents, are relishing the chance to dish the dirt on their experiences of Neal’s combative nature, including her son’s former trumpet teacher (Neal didn’t want to pay GST because “she didn’t agree with it”, a rather disturbing attitude for a member of a legislative body to take towards a legal requirement).
Despite noting that there’s more than a whiff of sexist prejudice in the media coverage of Neal’s transgressions compared to her husband’s, I don’t accept the argument from senior Federal MP Julie Irwin that the way that Neal has been handled by Rudd shows a sexist double standard regarding the disciplining of MPs.
Ms Irwin earlier said the ALP never punished former Labor leader Mark Latham for assaulting a taxi driver.
“Why is it that women are singled out by reporting of these incidents?” she asked.
“Why the Cheryl Kernot, the Kelly Hoare and now Belinda Neal? Why not the men?
“I’ve been in the Parliament for 10 years and can think of a dozen occasions where men have behaved offensively.”
I’m sure she’s right about previous overlooking of offensive behaviour in the notorious case of Latham particularly, but that long pre-dates Rudd and Gillard. Kelly Hoare was disciplined similarly for her errors, and it probably did contribute to the calculations involved in disendorsing her as a candidate for her seat in the election in favour of Greg Combet, but unless Irwin can point to a particular incident of offensive behaviour from a male Federal Labor MP in the interim between last May and now she can’t really argue that it’s a pattern of this leadership team – sometimes the distribution of datapoints really is simply skewed over a short interval. It strikes me more as this is Rudd firmly demonstrating that he expects certain standards from all MPs, and it’s just that the first erring MPs on his watch have turned out to be women. The rest of Irwin’s criticisms seem far more to do with the media reaction to errant female MPs compared to how they report on errant male MPs, where, as I said above, I’m sure she’s absolutely right about a double standard being displayed.
The commonality between the vulnerability of Kernot, Hoare and Neal to harsh party discipline may be a more indirect feature of sexism in the party, of course. All three women owe their original pre-selections as candidates more to the influence of party headquarters factors rather than to their own power-broking abilities – Kernot lost her original power-base when she left the Democrats and was never able to build another one of her own in the Labor Party, Hoare “inherited” the seat from her father and seems to have relied on a dwindling rump of his legacy-support in Parliament rather than building influence herself on top of that legacy, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine Neal gaining pre-selection for such a safe Federal Labor seat without the benefit of being Mrs Della Bosca and all the NSW Party influence his name entails.
Hoare and Neal particularly are not strong politicians of independent ability and their preselection as fairly unremarkable candidates may itself reflect larger systemic issues of sexism in the party as a whole with regard to how it chooses female candidates. Also none of the three women mentioned by Irwin have a history of swinging their own support in caucus – they all had to follow their factions rather than lead, although of course Kernot had a legitimate history of power-broking as a member and then Leader of the Democrats, and shouldn’t really be included in the same second-tier as Hoare or Neal – Kernot’s failure to be effective as a Labor politician was due to a miscalculation of the negative public reaction to her jumping the party horses midstream, not due to a long pattern of dependence on others for her political success.
Listening to the radio this morning, the announcer said that she found it telling that no-one in Canberra was coming to Neal’s defence on any of the claims of abusive or violent behaviour, none of her fellow backbenchers were stepping forward to say “this is not the Belinda I know”. Of course, she’s only been in Canberra since November, so how would anyone there know what she’s like, really? Fresher MPs have a lot to absorb and don’t have the time or energy to spare for as much socialising as the veterans. So Neal’s only defenders have come from the NSW party, where Della Bosca is a heavyweight, and this is not a good PR look.
Julia Gillard has denied that there is any sexist double standard at play in terms of party discipline. One can’t make a definitive determination based simply on Rudd publicly rebuking Neal and NSW Premier Iemma being much more circumspect with Della Bosca – you could hardly get two more different leadership styles than Iemma and Rudd. Certainly Neal’s alleged behaviours are cause for concern, just as Kelly Hoare’s were, and a public announcement of the request that she attend anger management counselling really doesn’t seem overly harsh, embarrassing for her though it might be. The arrogant streak that Neal and Della Bosca both display must also ensure that making examples of them is an awfully tempting thought for many of their less abrasive colleagues, which again might explain why Neal appears to perhaps have been singled out. We shall simply have to wait and see how Rudd and Gillard react to the next incident of offensive behaviour involving a male Federal Labor MP.