politics

Affairs, a toxic culture and blatant hypocrisy: Last night's explosive Four Corners investigation.

Two federal cabinet ministers have found themselves embroiled in a Four Corners investigation into inappropriate conduct in Canberra.

The ABC's report named federal government ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge in an episode focused on the attitudes towards women in the 'Canberra bubble' and toxic workplace environments.

Whistleblowers included former Parliament staffers and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

In 2018, Turnbull rewrote the code of ministerial standards to ban ministers from having sexual relationships with staff in response to then-deputy PM Barnaby Joyce's relationship with staffer Vikki Campion.

On Monday, hours before the episode aired, it emerged the federal government had questioned ABC board members and its managing director over whether the episode was in the public interest.

Porter has denied the allegations.

What are the allegations?

Among allegations against specific ministers, the episode identified a general toxic culture within Canberra.

Four Corners aired messages from a WhatsApp group featuring senior Liberal women, including current Cabinet ministers. In the group, the women despaired about the sexism of some of their male colleagues.

"We, each of us inspire young women to aim for leadership, how do we continue to do this in the face of puerile back-stabbing from male party members whose sole aim is to count numbers and take our place? This leads to huge party discontent and loss of loyal liberals who feel terribly betrayed," one message said.

Another said: "It is passed [sic] time for us to get organised and collectively stand up. After listening in party room... to bikini judging commentary, enough is enough."

Alan Tudge, Minister for Populations, Cities and Urban Infrastructure and acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs.

A former press secretary to Minister Alan Tudge told Four Corners she had an affair with him while working in his office.

Rachelle Miller said she was terrified it would be found out and wanted to speak more generally about disturbing behaviour she witnessed in Canberra.

"I lost a lot of self-confidence because I didn't feel I had any power at all to stand up for myself," she said.

Miller recalled a "demeaning" experience at Parliament's mid-winter ball.

"I was walking with Alan and I was chatting to him and I intentionally dropped back. I wasn’t his guest. I wasn’t his partner. And I didn’t want to be on camera. And he stopped and he turned around, and he said, 'No, I want you to walk in with me'. And I was really surprised by that," she said.

"I have a feeling that my appearance had a bearing on why Alan would want to walk in with me on his arm, and I felt at that time a lot like an ornament."

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Image: ABC.

Both Tudge and Miller were married at the time of the alleged affair.

Four Corners detailed Tudge's conservative views, his support of 'traditional family values' and his reservations about changing the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage.

Tudge told Parliament he worried if same-sex marriage was legalised "the institution itself would potentially be weakened". He eventually voted for the reform, as his Melbourne electorate voted in favour.

Image: Getty.

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After Tudge and Miller ended their affair, she said she moved offices and was then demoted in a restructure. She said she felt she had no choice but to leave politics.

"I knew I was leaving a job that I really loved, but I didn’t see that there was any other way out," she said.

The affair took place in 2017, before Turnbull's 'bonk ban' was put in place.

Tudge released a statement in response to Four Corners.

"I regret my actions immensely and the hurt it caused my family. I also regret the hurt that Ms Miller has experienced."

Christian Porter, Attorney-General of Australia.

Four Corners aired allegations about AG Christian Porter's behaviour during law school as well as his time as a government minister, before his appointment to Attorney-General in 2017.

Image: Getty.

Turnbull told the program he spoke to Porter in December 2017 about reports the soon-to-be attorney-general had been seen drinking too much and "in the company of young women" at a Canberra bar.

"This is unacceptable conduct for a cabinet minister and it exposes you to the risk of compromise," Turnbull said he told Porter.

The role of attorney-general entitles the office-bearer to a seat on the National Security Committee.

"The risk of compromise is very real - it's not just the stuff of spy novels," Turnbull said, admitting that if he had been aware of broader concerns about Mr Porter at the time, he would have made further inquiries before finalising his promotion.

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Porter still holds the portfolio in the Morrison government, and today released a statement that he "categorically rejected" the allegations aired by Four Corners about his behaviour in that Canberra pub.

At the time of the incident Porter - now separated from his second wife - was married and his wife and young child were at home in Perth, the ABC reported.

Like Tudge, Porter has campaigned on 'family values'.

Porter said in a statement about his 2017 meeting with Turnbull that the then-prime minister queried whether there was any accuracy to the "story" he had heard, and that the "answer was no".

"Malcolm then promoted me to attorney-general about two weeks after," Mr Porter said.

The Four Corners program revealed that during his university days in Western Australia, Mr Porter often made demeaning remarks about women, including notes in year books.

Barrister Kathleen Foley described his behaviour at the time as "deeply sexist and actually misogynistic".

"I apologise for material I wrote in a law school magazine 24 years ago. I obviously wouldn't write that now and it is something I regret," Porter said in response.

What has the response been like?

Tudge acknowledged his affair and apologised in a public statement to his family as well as Miller.

Porter denied many of the allegations against him in a statement, and said "given the defamatory nature of many of the claims made in tonight's programme, I will be considering legal options."

He claimed Four Corners journalist Louise Milligan never contacted him or his office. In response to this on Twitter, Milligan said the investigation gave him two weeks to respond to detailed queries - much longer than is usually given to politicians by media.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not commented since the show aired, but on Monday he said he supported Turnbull's 'bonk ban'.

"I more than supported it, I ensured that it continued," he told media.

"Why it's there is to protect, I think, a culture in the parliament. 

"It's not just on any one side of politics can I tell you. I note that the Labor Party has mocked the ban and hasn't supported it."

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Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten told Today on Tuesday the claims made by Four Corners were "pretty seedy" and women staffers in Parliament House had a right to feel safe and supported.

"But I don't think a lot of MPs go to Canberra and, you know, play up and get on the beers every night," Shorten said.

Did the government try to get the episode spiked?

The ABC said federal ministerial staffers contacted the very highest levels of the media organisation to ask whether the Four Corners episode was 'in the public interest'.

ABC managing director David Anderson said he had received about "half a dozen" emails from staff of government ministers whose offices had been approached by Four Corners for comment.

"I haven't had it put to me to drop the story entirely. What I've had is questioning about whether it was in the public interest," Anderson told a Senate estimates committee on Monday.

"Contact over a story pre-publishing that sits outside the person of interest I think is problematic. I'm not aware of any untoward pressure on the ABC specifically not to publish but any contact I think becomes difficult."

He said he had also received phone calls from one office, and ABC chair Ita Buttrose told him board members had also been contacted by a federal staffer.

Anderson and the episode's executive producer Sally Neighbour have both said the episode focused on Liberal ministers as conduct concerned is now banned in ministerial standards.

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Morrison said on Monday the ABC had a duty to "uphold its charter", when asked if his office or other ministers had applied pressure over the episode.

"We would just expect that the ABC, always, that they would act in an independent and an unbiased way.

"If they are going to make inquiries I would think they would want to do them across the political spectrum."

Has Barnaby Joyce responded?

The 'bonk ban' was part of Turnbull's public response after it emerged Joyce had formed a relationship with his former press secretary Vikki Campion.

During the episode, Turnbull admitted it was also in response to wider issues with other ministers.

Speaking to news.com.au before the episode aired, Joyce said he warned Turnbull other politicians were having sex with staffers.

"Now, the chicken has come home to roost," Joyce said.

"And you can put this on the record: I brought this to Malcolm's attention. I said, 'But there are others Malcolm? What are you going to do about them?' He just looked at his porridge. He just looked at his desk. I said: 'this is ridiculous.'"

Joyce said if relationships involved two consensual adults, it should be nobody else's business.

-With AAP.

Feature image: ABC.

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