The Canberra Bubble

A Toxic Gender Culture



How to Cite

Heurich, A., & Coghlan, J. (2021). The Canberra Bubble: A Toxic Gender Culture. M/C Journal, 24(1). (Original work published March 13, 2021)
Vol. 24 No. 1 (2021): bubbles
Published 2021-03-13 — Updated on 2021-03-15

According to the ABC television program Four Corners, “Parliament House in Canberra is a hotbed of political intrigue and high tension … . It’s known as the ‘Canberra Bubble’ and it operates in an atmosphere that seems far removed from how modern Australian workplaces are expected to function.”

The term “Canberra Bubble” morphed to its current definition from 2001, although it existed in other forms before this. Its use has increased since 2015, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison regularly referring to it when attempting to deflect from turmoil within, or focus on, his Coalition government (Gwynn). “Canberra Bubble” was selected as the 2018 “Word of the Year” by the Australian National Dictionary Centre, defined as “referring to the idea that federal politicians, bureaucracy, and political journalists are obsessed with the goings-on in Canberra (rather than the everyday concerns of Australians)” (Gwynn).

In November 2020, Four Corners aired an investigation into the behaviour of top government ministers, including Attorney-General Christian Porter, Minister Alan Tudge, and former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party Barnaby Joyce; entitled “Inside the Canberra Bubble”. The program’s reporter, Louise Milligan, observed:

there’s a strong but unofficial tradition in federal politics of what happens in Canberra, stays in Canberra. Politicians, political staff and media operate in what’s known as ‘The Canberra Bubble’. Along with the political gamesmanship, there’s a heady, permissive culture and that culture can be toxic for women.

The program acknowledged that parliamentary culture included the belief that politicians’ private lives were not open to public scrutiny. However, this leaves many women working in Parliament House feeling that such silence allows inappropriate behaviour and sexism to “thrive” in the “culture of silence” (Four Corners).

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was interviewed for the Four Corners program, acknowledged: “there is always a power imbalance between the boss and somebody who works for them, the younger and more junior they are, the more extreme that power imbalance is. And of course, Ministers essentially have the power to hire and fire their staff, so they’ve got enormous power.” He equates this to past culture in large corporations; a culture that has seen changes in business, but not in the federal parliament. It is the latter place that is a toxic bubble for women.

A Woman Problem in the Bubble

Louise Milligan reported: “the Liberal Party has been grappling with what’s been described as a ‘women problem’ for several years, with accusations of endemic sexism.” The underrepresentation of women in the current government sees them holding only seven of the 30 current ministerial positions. The Liberal Party has fewer women in the House of Representatives now than it did 20 years ago, while the Labor Party has doubled the number of women in its ranks. When asked his view on the “woman problem”, Malcolm Turnbull replied: “well I think women have got a problem with the Liberal Party. It’s probably a better way of putting it … . The party does not have enough women MPs and Senators … . It is seen as being very blokey.” Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in March 2019: “we want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise, only on the basis of others doing worse” (Four Corners); with “others” seen as a reference to men.

The Liberal Party’s “woman problem” has been widely discussed in recent years, both in relation to the low numbers of women in its parliamentary representation and in its behaviour towards women. These claims were evident in an article highlighting allegations of bullying by Member of Parliament (MP) Julia Banks, which led to her resignation from the Liberal Party in 2018. Banks’s move to the crossbench as an Independent was followed by the departure from politics of senior Liberal MP and former Deputy Leader Julie Bishop and three other female Liberal MPs prior to the 2019 federal election. For resigning Liberal MP Linda Reynolds, the tumultuous change of leadership in the Liberal Party on 24 August 2018, when Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, left her to say: “I do not recognise my party at the moment. I do not recognise the values. I do not recognise the bullying and intimidation that has gone on.” Bishop observed on 5 September: “it’s evident that there is an acceptance of a level of behaviour in Canberra that would not be tolerated in any other workplace.” And in her resignation speech on 27 November, Banks stated: “Often, when good women call out or are subjected to bad behaviour, the reprisals, backlash and commentary portrays them as the bad ones – the liar, the troublemaker, the emotionally unstable or weak, or someone who should be silenced” (Four Corners).

Rachel Miller is a former senior Liberal staffer who worked for nine years in Parliament House. She admitted to having a consensual relationship with MP Alan Tudge. Both were married at the time. Her reason for “blowing the whistle” was not about the relationship itself, rather the culture built on an imbalance of power that she experienced and witnessed, particularly when endeavouring to end the relationship with Tudge. This saw her moving from Tudge’s office to that of Michaelia Cash, eventually being demoted and finally resigning. Miller refused to accept the Canberra bubble “culture of just putting your head down and not getting involved”.

The Four Corners story also highlighted the historical behaviour of Attorney-General Christian Porter and his attitude towards women over several decades. Milligan reported:

in the course of this investigation, Four Corners has spoken to dozens of former and currently serving staffers, politicians, and members of the legal profession. Many have worked within, or voted for, the Liberal Party. And many have volunteered examples of what they believe is inappropriate conduct by Christian Porter – including being drunk in public and making unwanted advances to women.

Lawyer Josh Bornstein told Four Corners that the role of Attorney-General “occupies a unique role … as the first law officer of the country”, having a position in both the legal system and in politics. It is his view that this comes with a requirement for the Attorney-General “to be impeccable in terms of personal and political behaviour”. Milligan asserts that Porter’s role as “the nation’s chief law officer, includes implementing rules to protect women”.

A historical review of Porter’s behaviour and attitude towards women was provided to Four Corners by barrister Kathleen Foley and debating colleague from 1987, Jo Dyer. Dyer described Porter as “very charming … very confident … Christian was quite slick … he had an air of entitlement … that I think was born of the privilege from which he came”. Foley has known Porter since she was sixteen, including at university and later when both were at the State Solicitors’ Office in Western Australia, and her impression was that Porter possessed a “dominant personality”. She said that many expected him to become a “powerful person one day” partly due to his father being “a Liberal Party powerbroker”, and that Porter had aspirations to become Prime Minister. She observed: “I’ve known him to be someone who was in my opinion, and based on what I saw, deeply sexist and actually misogynist in his treatment of women, in the way that he spoke about women.” Foley added: “for a long time, Christian has benefited from the silence around his conduct and his behaviour, and the silence has meant that his behaviour has been tolerated … . I’m here because I don’t think that his behaviour should be tolerated, and it is not acceptable.”

Miller told the Four Corners program that she and others, including journalists, had observed Porter being “very intimate” with a young woman. Milligan noted that Porter “had a wife and toddler at home in Perth”, while Miller found the incident “quite confronting … in such a public space … . I was quite surprised by the behaviour and … it was definitely a step too far”. The incident was confirmed to Four Corners by “five other people, including Coalition staffers”. However, in 2017 the “Public Bar incident remained inside the Canberra bubble – it never leaked”, reports Milligan.

In response to the exposure of Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce’s relationship with a member of his staff, Malcolm Turnbull changed the Code of Ministerial Standards (February 2018) for members of the Coalition Government (Liberal and National Parties). Labelled by many media as the “bonk ban”, the new code banned sexual relationships between ministers and their staff. Turnbull stopped short of asking Joyce to resign (Yaxley), however, Joyce stepped down as Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister shortly after the code was amended.

Turnbull has conceded that the Joyce affair was the catalyst for implementing changes to ministerial standards (Four Corners). He was also aware of other incidents, including the behaviour of Christian Porter and claims he spoke with Porter in 2017, when concerns were raised about Porter’s behaviour. In what Turnbull acknowledges to be a stressful working environment, the ‘Canberra bubble’ is exacerbated by long hours, alcohol, and being away from family; this leads some members to a loss of standards in behaviour, particularly in relation to how women are viewed. This seems to blame the ‘bubble’ rather than acknowledge poor behaviour. Despite the allegations of improper behaviour against Porter, in 2017 Turnbull appointed Porter Attorney-General.

Describing the atmosphere in the Canberra bubble, Miller concedes that not “all men are predators and [not] all women are victims”. She adds that a “work hard, play hard … gung ho mentality” in a “highly sexualised environment” sees senior men not being called out for behaviour, creating the perception that they are “almost beyond reproach [and it’s] something they can get away with”. Turnbull observes: “the attitudes to women and the lack of respect … of women in many quarters … reminds me of the corporate scene … 40 years ago. It’s just not modern Australia” (Four Corners).

In a disclaimer about the program, Milligan stated:

Four Corners does not suggest only Liberal politicians cross this line. But the Liberal Party is in government. And the Liberal politicians in question are Ministers of the Crown. All ministers must now abide by Ministerial Standards set down by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2018. They say: ‘Serving the Australian people as Ministers ... is an honour and comes with expectations to act at all times to the highest possible standards of probity.’ They also prohibit Ministers from having sexual relations with staff. 

Both Tudge and Porter were sent requests by Four Corners for interviews and answers to detailed questions prior to the program going to air. Tudge did not respond and Porter provided a brief statement in regards to his meeting with Malcolm Turnbull, denying that he had been questioned about allegations of his conduct as reported by Four Corners and that other matters had been discussed.

Reactions to the Four Corners Program

Responses to the program via mainstream media and on social media were intense, ranging from outrage at the behaviour of ministers on the program, to outrage that the program had aired the private lives of government ministers, with questions as to whether this was in the public interest. Porter himself disputed allegations of his behaviour aired in the program, labelling the claims as “totally false” and said he was considering legal options for “defamation” (Maiden). However, in a subsequent radio interview, Porter said “he did not want a legal battle to distract from his role” as a government minister (Moore). Commenting on the meeting he had with Turnbull in 2017, Porter asserted that Turnbull had not spoken to him about the alleged behaviour and that Turnbull “often summoned ministers in frustration about the amount of detail leaking from his Cabinet.” Porter also questioned the comments made by Dyer and Foley, saying he had not had contact with them “for decades” (Maiden). Yet, in a statement provided to the West Australian after the program aired, Porter admitted that Turnbull had raised the rumours of an incident and Porter had assured him they were unfounded. In a statement he again denied the allegations made in the Four Corners program, but admitted that he had “failed to be a good husband” (Moore). In a brief media release following the program, Tudge stated: “I regret my actions immensely and the hurt it caused my family. I also regret the hurt that Ms. Miller has experienced” (Grattan).

Following the Four Corners story, Scott Morrison and Anne Ruston, the Minister for Families and Social Services, held a media conference to respond to the allegations raised by the program. Ruston was asked about her views of the treatment of women within the Liberal Party. However, she was cut off by Morrison who aired his grievance about the use of the term “bonk ban” by journalists, when referring to the ban on ministers having sexual relations with their staff. This interruption of a female minister responding to a question directed at her about allegations of misogyny drew world-wide attention. Ruston went on to reply that she felt “wholly supported” as a member of the party and in her Cabinet position. The video of the incident resulted in a backlash on social media. Ruston was asked about being cut off by the Prime Minister at subsequent media interviews and said she believed it to be “an entirely appropriate intervention” and reiterated her own experiences of being fully supported by other members of the Liberal Party (Maasdorp).

Attempts to Silence the ABC

A series of actions by government staff and ministers prior to, and following, the Four Corners program airing confirmed the assumption suggested by Milligan that “what happens in Canberra, stays in Canberra”. In the days leading to the airing of the Four Corners program, members of the federal government contacted ABC Chair Ita Buttrose, ABC Managing Director David Anderson, and other senior staff, criticising the program’s content before its release and questioning whether it was in the public interest. The Executive Producer for the program, Sally Neighbour, tweeted about the attempts to have the program cancelled on the day it was to air, and praised ABC management for not acceding to the demands.

Anderson raised his concerns about the emails and calls to ABC senior staff while appearing at Senate estimates and said he found it “extraordinary” (Murphy & Davies). Buttrose also voiced her concerns and presented a lecture reinforcing the importance of “the ABC, democracy and the importance of press freedom”. As the public broadcaster, the ABC has a charter under the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act (1983) (ABC Act), which includes its right to media independence. The attempt by the federal government to influence programming at the ABC was seen as countering this independence.

Following the airing of the Four Corners program, the Morrison Government, via Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, again contacted Ita Buttrose by letter, asking how reporting allegations of inappropriate behaviour by ministers was “in the public interest”. Fletcher made the letter public via his Twitter account on the same day. The letter “posed 15 questions to the ABC board requesting an explanation within 14 days as to how the episode complied with the ABC’s code of practice and its statutory obligations to provide accurate and impartial journalism”. Fletcher also admitted that a senior member of his staff had contacted a member of the ABC board prior to the show airing but denied this was “an attempt to lobby the board”. Reportedly the ABC was “considering a response to what it believes is a further attack on its independence” (Visentin & Samios).

A Case of Double Standards

Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told Milligan (Four Corners) that she believes “values and beliefs are very important” when standing for political office, with a responsibility to electors to “abide by those values and beliefs because ultimately we will be judged by them”. It is her view that “there is an expectation that in service of the Australian public, [politicians] abide by the highest possible conduct and integrity”.

Porter has portrayed himself as being a family man, and an advocate for people affected by sexual harassment and concerned about domestic violence. Four Corners included two videos of Porter, the first from June 2020, where he stated: “no-one should have to suffer sexual harassment at work or in any other part of their lives … . The Commonwealth Government takes it very seriously”. In the second recording, from 2015, Porter spoke on the topic of domestic violence, where he advocated ensuring “that young boys understand what a respectful relationship is … what is acceptable and … go on to be good fathers and good husbands”.

Tudge and Joyce hold a conservative view of traditional marriage as being between a man and a woman. They made this very evident during the plebiscite on legalising same-sex marriage in 2017. One of Tudge’s statements during the public debate was shown on the Four Corners program, where he said that he had “reservations about changing the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples” as he viewed “marriage as an institution … primarily about creating a bond for the creation, love and care of children. And … if the definition is changed … then the institution itself would potentially be weakened”. Miller responded by confirming that this was the public image Tudge portrayed, however, she was upset, surprised and believed it to be hypocrisy “to hear him … speak in parliament … and express a view that for children to have the right upbringing they need to have a mother and father and a traditional kind of family environment” (Four Corners).

Following the outcome to the plebiscite in favour of marriage equality (Evershed), both Tudge and Porter voted to pass the legislation, in line with their electorates, while Joyce abstained from voting on the legislation (against the wishes of his electorate), along with nine other MPs including Scott Morrison (Henderson). Turnbull told Milligan:

there’s no question that some of the most trenchant opponents of same-sex marriage, all in the name of traditional marriage, were at the same time enthusiastic practitioners of traditional adultery. As I said many times, this issue of the controversy over same-sex marriage was dripping with hypocrisy and the pools were deepest at the feet of the sanctimonious.

The Bubble Threatens to Burst

On 25 January 2021, the advocate for survivors of sexual assault, Grace Tame, was announced as Australian of the Year. This began a series of events that has the Canberra bubble showing signs of potentially rupturing, or perhaps even imploding, as further allegations of sexual assault emerge. Inspired by the speech of Grace Tame at the awards ceremony and the fact that the Prime Minister was standing beside her, on 15 February 2021, former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins disclosed to journalist Samantha Maiden the allegation that she had been raped by a senior staffer in March 2019. Higgins also appeared in a television interview with Lisa Wilkinson that evening. The assault allegedly occurred after hours in the office of her boss, then Minister for Defence Industry and current Minister for Defence, Senator Linda Reynolds.

Higgins said she reported what had occurred to the Minister and other staff, but felt she was being made to choose between her job and taking the matter to police. The 2019 federal election was called a few weeks later. Although Higgins wanted to continue in her “dream job” at Parliament House, she resigned prior to her disclosure in February 2021. Reynolds and Morrison were questioned extensively on the matter, in parliament and by the media, as to what they knew and when they were informed. Public outrage at the allegations was heightened by conflicting stories of these timelines and of who else knew. Although Reynolds had declared to the Senate that her office had provided full support to Higgins, it was revealed that her original response to the allegations to those in her office on the day of the media publication was to call Higgins a “lying cow”. After another public and media outcry, Reynolds apologised to Higgins (Hitch).

Initially avoiding addressing the Higgins allegation directly, Morrison finally stated his empathy for Higgins in a doorstop media interview, reflecting advice he had received from his wife:

Jenny and I spoke last night, and she said to me, "You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?" Jenny has a way of clarifying things, always has.

On 3 March 2021, Grace Tame presented a powerful speech to the National Press Club. She was asked her view on the Prime Minister referring to his role as a father in the case of Brittany Higgins. Morrison’s statement had already enraged the public and certain members of the media, including many female journalists. Tame considered her response, then replied: “It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience. [pause] And actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.” The statement was met by applause from the gallery and received public acclaim.

A further allegation of rape was made public on 27 February 2021, when friends of a deceased woman sent the Prime Minister a full statement from the woman that a current unnamed Cabinet Minister had raped her in 1988, when she was 16 years old (Yu). Morrison was asked whether he had spoken with the Minister, and stated that the Minister had denied the allegations and he saw no need to take further action, and would leave it to the police. New South Wales police subsequently announced that in light of the woman’s death last year, they could not proceed with an investigation and the matter was closed. The name of the woman has not been officially disclosed, however, on the afternoon of 3 March 2021 Attorney-General Christian Porter held a press conference naming himself as the Minister in question and vehemently denied the allegations. In light of the latest allegations, coverage by some journalists has shown the propensity to be complicit in protecting the Canberra bubble, while others (mainly women) endeavour to provide investigative journalistic coverage.

The Outcome to Date

Focus on the behaviour highlighted by “Inside the Canberra Bubble” in November 2020 waned quickly, with journalist Sean Kelly observing:

since ABC’s Four Corners broadcast an episode exploring entrenched sexism in Parliament House, and more specifically within the Liberal Party, male politicians have said very, very, very little about it … . The episode in question was broadcast three weeks ago. It’s old news. But in this case that’s the point: every time the issue of sexism in Canberra is raised, it’s quickly rushed past, then forgotten (by men). Nothing happens.

As noted earlier, Rachel Miller resigned from her position at Parliament House following the affair with Tudge. Barrister Kathleen Foley had held a position on the Victorian Bar Council, however three days after the Four Corners program went to air, Foley was voted off the council. According to Matilda Boseley from The Guardian, the change of council members was seen more broadly as an effort to remove progressives. Foley has also been vocal about gender issues within the legal profession. With the implementation of the new council, five members held their positions and 16 were replaced, seeing a change from 62 per cent female representation to 32 per cent (Boseley).

No action was taken by the Prime Minister in light of the revelations by Four Corners: Christian Porter maintained his position as Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations, and Leader of the House; and Alan Tudge continued as a member of the Federal Cabinet, currently as Minister for Education and Youth. Despite ongoing calls for an independent enquiry into the most recent allegations, and for Porter to stand aside, he continues as Attorney-General, although he has taken sick leave to address mental health impacts of the allegations (ABC News). Reynolds continues to hold the position of Defence Minister following the Higgins allegations, and has also taken sick leave on the advice of her specialist, now extended to after the March 2021 sitting of parliament (Doran).

While Scott Morrison stands in support of Porter amid the allegations against him, he has called for an enquiry into the workplace culture of Parliament House. This appears to be in response to claims that a fourth woman was assaulted, allegedly by Higgins’s perpetrator. The enquiry, to be led by Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, is focussed on “how to change the culture, how to change the practices, and how to ensure that, in future, we do have the best possible environment for prevention and response” (Murphy). By focussing the narrative of the enquiry on the “culture” of Parliament House, it diverts attention from the allegations of rape by Higgins and against Porter. While the enquiry is broadly welcomed, any outcomes will require more than changes to the workplace: they will require a much broader social change in attitudes towards women.

The rage of women, in light of the current gendered political culture, has evolved into a call to action. An initial protest march, planned for outside Parliament House on 15 March 2021, has expanded to rallies in all capital cities and many other towns and cities in Australia. Entitled Women’s March 4 Justice, thousands of people, both women and men, have indicated their intention to participate.

It is acknowledged that many residents of Canberra have objected to their entire city being encompassed in the term “Canberra Bubble”. However, the term’s relevance to this current state of affairs reflects the culture of those working in and for the Australian parliament, rather than residents of the city. It also describes the way that those who work in all things related to the federal government carry an apparent assumption that the bubble offers them immunity from the usual behaviour and accountability required of those outside the bubble. It this “bubble” that needs to burst. With a Prime Minister seemingly unable to recognise the hypocrisy of Ministers allegedly acting in ways contrary to “good character”, and for Porter, with ongoing allegations of improper behaviour, as expected for the country’s highest law officer, and in his mishandling of Higgins claims as called out by Tame, the bursting of the “Canberra bubble” may cost him government.


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Author Biographies

Angelika Heurich, University of New England, Armidale, NSW.

PhD Candidate, Sociology

School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences

Jo Coghlan, University of New England

Dr Jo Coghlan is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW. She teaches in the areas of research and methodology in popular and material culture. Her research interests are in the fashioned political body with recent publications in Persona and Places: Negotiating Myths, Stereotypes and National Identities (WalterHill Publishing), The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies, and Media/Culture Journal.