Via our Headlines, this clip from an Australian news show provides a sort of Rorschach test for political junkies. Last week, Speaker of Australia’s Parliament Peter Slipper temporarily resigned his position while he defends himself against same-gender sexual harassment allegations from his former advisor, who is suing Slipper and the government. Slipper denies the charges but had been under pressure to resign, which prompted Prime Minister Julia Gillard to make a statement on the case while visiting Turkey. When an interviewer asked fellow Labor Party MP Bill Shorten what he thought of Gillard’s statement, Shorten offered this bizarre response:
Q: … Do you think he should return to the Speaker’s chair while the civil claims are still being played out?
A: I understand that the Prime Minister has addressed this in a press conference in Turkey in the last few hours. I haven’t seen what she said, but let me say I support what it is that she said.
Q: Hang on. You haven’t seen what she said …
A: But I support what my Prime Minister said, so …
Q: Well, what’s your view?
A: My view is what the Prime Minister’s view is.
Q: Surely you must have your own view on this, Bill Shorten.
A: No. When you ask whether I’ve got my own view on this, that’s such a general question and it invites me to go into lots of places —
Q: Well, specific question is whether Peter Slipper should return as Speaker of your Parliament while he’s facing civil claims of sexual harassment.
A: Sexual harassment is an incredibly serious matter. Ah, there should be no tolerance for sexual harassment. That’s my view. On the other hand, these matters have yet to be established, and I support what my Prime Minister has said.
Q: But you don’t know what that is.
A: No, I’m sure she’s right.
And, er … don’t call him Shirley. For the record, Gillard yesterday demanded that Slipper extend his hiatus from the office, as reported by the Herald Sun earlier today. That’s a change from the more defiant tone Gillard took in Turkey a few days earlier, in which she vowed to stand by the embattled Speaker and dared the opposition to remove him. Ironically for MP Shorten, not even Julia Gillard was sure Julia Gillard was right at that press conference in Turkey, and at least she knew what was said.
That brings us to the Rorschach test. Is this an example of party hackery in politics, or an unfair media ambush? I expected to see a lot of comments laughing at Shorten’s faceplant on TV, but a couple of commenters blamed the media host for putting Shorten in an impossible position, as party politics in parliamentary systems forces unity on its members. Otherwise, governments can fall, forcing elections and potentially a loss of status for people like Shorten, who serves in Gillard’s government as the head of two ministries.
However, the charges have been made public, and the question of efficacy in the role during the litigation — as well as the political damage the charges will do to Gillard’s government — are hardly out of bounds. All Shorten had to say was that the charges were serious, but he had no position on whether Slipper should step down. Instead, Shorten turned himself into a lasting example of party hackery, and an easy point of comparison for those who reflexively defend their party or favorite politician regardless of circumstance. Don’t be surprised to see Shorten Awards in the future.