When Politics Kills: Kimberley Kitching, Politics and Bullying

Politics can literally kill.  It can seep into the vitals, gnaw away and suck life.  Some of the worst battles are waged against colleagues within your own party, all driven by a crazed Social Darwinism to survive.  Individually, they may be human and credentialled beings; as a faction, they are monstrous and venal.  The threat of a metaphorical lynching or stabbing is never far away.

The late Victorian Senator Kimberley Kitching of the Australian Labor Party did not shy away from the contest.  She lacked timidity.  Former Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten described her as having a “serene intellect”.  Colleagues across the aisle saw good reason to appreciate her.  Journalist Joe Hildebrand saw her as “Labor’s fabled light on the hill”, a skilled “pragmatic centrist who illuminated ideological idiocy.”

The burgeoning file of condolences also featured a letter to Kitching’s husband, Andrew Landeryou, authored by the Dalai Lama himself.  “Senator Kitching was a steadfast supporter and a friend of the Tibetan leader,” wrote the spiritual leader.  “As you know, I had the opportunity to meet her when she visited Dharamsala in 2017 with the delegation of parliamentarians.”

As with all matters political, her views with the factions, notably the Left, grated.  She took a position on China that agreed well with the Morrison government.  In February, she specifically named Chinese-Australian property developer Chau Chak Wing in a parliamentary hearing committee as a master “puppeteer” behind a failed foreign interference scheme to elect candidates.

The domestic intelligence chief Mike Burgess, in being asked by the senator whether Chau was, in fact, the figure in question, proved unimpressed. “As I said before, I will not comment on speculation of who is or isn’t targets [sic], and it’s unfair you ask me that question in public.”

Singling out Chau was no small matter.  Australia universities have been the happy recipients of millions in donations from the philanthropist.  The University of Sydney has a museum named after him.  Both the Liberal and Labor parties have received donations from his deep pockets.  Chau was also awarded $590,000 in damages in 2017 for similar allegations about allegiance in a Four Corners report.

As admirers were won on the opposite benches, Kitching made her complement of enemies on her side of the aisle.  “For these and other reasons, she became a square peg in the round Labor hole,” writes that veteran, if dull commentator of Australian politics, Michelle Grattan.

Harsh treatment followed.  The Labor Party’s Senate leadership chose to distance her from intimate party processes.  She was cold shouldered and removed from the tactics committee.  The “mean girls” (terminology embraced by The Australian and some of Kitching’s supporters) – Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong, deputy Kristina Keneally and manager of opposition business in the Senate, Katy Gallagher – rounded on her.

This treatment did not go without comment.  The Senator complained, having a word with deputy Labor leader Richard Marles, who refuses to engage the subject.  To a parliament-employed workplace trainer (are politicians trainable animals?), Kitching also complained of bullying.

The Victorian Senator was facing that most arduous task when she had the fatal heart attack: preselection.  She had doubts.  Would Labor leader Anthony Albanese endorse her?  Text messages were exchanged with colleagues, two Labor, one Liberal.  The conventional wisdom in the party did not suggest a change of heart on Kitching.  But fear and stress had found their place in the mind like stone gargoyles over a church.

In politics, statements of denials often betray a patina of truth.  Making them in the first place can be a mistake.  But Wong, Keneally and Gallagher evidently thought it wise enough to deny the accusations, coming across more as party henchmen than collegial sisters.  “The allegations of bullying are untrue.  Other assertions which have been made are similarly inaccurate.”

The trio go on to reflect about politics – that most “challenging” of professions.  “Contests can be robust and interactions difficult.  All of its participants at times act or speak in ways that can impact on others negatively.  We have and do reflect on this, as individuals and as leaders.”  The statement is coldly procedural, an effort to cover tracks and patch up misperceptions.  It goes some way to proving Benjamin Disraeli’s point that in politics, honour is somehow absent.

Wong, however, has not denied making a hurtful comment to Senator Kitching during an ALP tactics meeting that took place in 2019.  The session dealt with whether Labor would support a motion advanced by the Greens that children participating in climate change protests should be supported for expressing “civil disobedience”.  Kitching urged the party not to, as it would merely be a fatuous exercise of “virtue signalling”.  Some parents, she pointed out, might want their children at school.

In the exchange, Wong stroppily countered Kitching with that oldest, if condemned of political put downs.  “Well, if you had children, you might understand why there is a climate emergency.”

It was one she subsequently regretted and apologised for. “Senator Wong understood that apology was accepted.  The comments that have been reported do not reflect Senator Wong’s views, as those who knew her would understand, and she deeply regrets pain these reports have caused.”

The treatment of Kitching has created a momentum that risks going the way of all others: that of an inquiry or an investigation.  It would only do what others have done: reveal that the resume of most politicians requires bullying as a primary attribute.  Any such process, in every other sense, is bound to resolve nothing and certainly do nothing for the late Senator.

In the meantime, Albanese is witnessing the politicisation of the entire matter, with Defence Minister Peter Dutton keen to drive it.  “If Anthony Albanese, as leader of the Labor Party, is not going to initiate some process, then alternatives should be looked at,” Dutton chirped.

This is also rich coming from a government minister whose own party has made bullying and harassment of party members and staffers the natural order of things.  Former Liberal Party MP Julia Banks has much to say on the issue, having been called by her own party members and colleagues a “rich bitch”, “nasty”, and a “crazy corporate” woman.  But this is an election year, and all bets are off.

Politics is cut, thrust and manipulation, the making of deals, the rough art of compromise.  It is also, in a behavioural sense, prone to clubs and the clubbable factor – girls, boys and all in between.  The inner bully comes roaring out; the cowardly gather in communion.  Along the way, skulls are cracked, spiritual injuries inflicted yet unseen.  Kitching was considered one of the better eggs who may have cracked.  And as a better egg, she went.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.