Policies are commonly crafted to remedy something: plugging a shortcoming or loophole perhaps, or mitigating an existing or looming catastrophe.
Recently the policy problem has been Barnaby Joyce. Or #Barnababy as it’s known in the Twittersphere. The country’s second highest ranked politician spent a good chunk of 2017 telling Australians about what constitutes a good and proper marriage. All the while Mr Joyce was busy impregnating his work wife. Barnababy is bad PR, particularly so for a conservative party whose branding relies on heavy doses of Mayberry and wishful thinking. The PM had to do something.
So Barnababy is the policy problem and anti-fraternisation is the PM’s policy solution.
On one hand this is just another way for conservatives to control our intimate lives; to be dictatorial about what constitutes good and proper lovemaking. On the other hand—and what makes the story interesting to me—is that the PM is pretending the policy is a feminist one.
In his press conference announcing the ministerial ban on fornicating with underlings, the PM indulged in copious self-back-pats, and mentioned repeatedly what a gift this policy was for women. Apparently in a country where most ministers have penises, the true key to gender equality is forcing these cabineted gents to keep their manhood zippered.
My hunch is that most voters wouldn’t have cared one way or another who Barnaby—or who any other cabinet minister—had penised. Such shenanigans however, become relevant when these same men are involved in making policies that sanction the personal lives of others. They become relevant when taxpayers are helping fund their representative’s sexcapades. Then suddenly our interest is piqued.
Creating a working environment free from harassment is the duty of all employers. It’s been the duty of employers since the 1970s. The PM has packaged his public bollocking of Barnaby as somehow new policy connected to existing—alebit not always rigidly adhered to—sexual harassment legislation; that somehow the new rules will go further in protecting female staffers. In practice, Turnbull has crafted policy that is not only completely unfeminist, but which has no hope in hell of acting as any kind of prophylactic against the next Barnababy.
If the #MeToo movement has gifted us anything it’s the importance of frank and fearless conversations about consent. Be it because of wilful ignorance or genuine befuddlement, there seems to be mass contestation about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate conduct. We all need to be better with this stuff. Regardless of your views on the respective players, Barnababy is not a case of sexual harassment. While Turnbull is doing his best to dogwhistle and muddy the waters, nobody is alleging that Barnaby’s partner didn’t make an informed decision about letting the Deputy PM penetrate her. To package the new anti-fraternisation policy as a panacea to workplace harassment takes away a woman’s ability to say yes to a sexual encounter—regardless of how ‘immoral’ that sex might be construed as—and is every bit as damaging as inadequately facilitating her right to say no. It also naively overlooks how people actually meet one another.
While hook-up apps and online dating sites get the lion’s share of attention as matchmakers, the reality is that an awful lot of us meet our partners through friends, through education, and oftentimes through work: a place where huge chunks of our waking lives are spent. In most jobs it’s inappropriate to take your love to town on the lid of the photocopier, but attempting to sanction what consenting adults do outside of the workday is, yet again, demonstrative of the Right trying to control how we use our time and bodies. It also ignores the erotic reality that most of us get a whole lot hornier when we’re told not to do something. Few things stoke our libidos more than feeling like we probably shouldn’t be doing this; that there’s risk in our fluid exchange.
Attraction is a biological necessity, and workplace romances—be they infidelities or not—are inevitable. All Turnbull’s anti-fraternisation policy will do is allow him to easily dump the next Barnaby from cabinet and force future couples to be clandestine about their shenanigans. Far from being a pro-woman policy, it forces the woman in any office dyad—invariably in the subordinate role—to have to take a job somewhere else and, in the process, likely sabotages her career to protect her partner whose cabinet position is on the line.
I don’t want my employer to dictate what’s acceptable and unacceptable sex. Equally, I don’t want my government to assume I’m too female to make decisions regarding use of my orifices. Instead, I want policymakers to create a culture where sexual harassment is intolerable; where sexual consent is understood. I want quality reporting procedures and I want my career not to be sabotaged if I need to complain.
A heavy-handed and, seemingly, ham-fisted curtailing of the behaviour of consenting adults has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with the default, knee-jerk way that conservatives try to solve problems by insisting we keep our knees tightly together.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of nine books and co-hosts ‘Stop Everything!’ on Radio National.