The so-called “mean girls” story following the death of Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, has opened up issues of alleged bad behaviour by very senior figures within the Labor party.
The allegations are serious, and Anthony Albanese and his colleagues were never going to get away with denying them oxygen by pushing them aside, as they hoped.
But the fact the claims and denials are being played out even before Kitching’s funeral takes them into an extraordinary realm.
Although only junior in the parliamentary pecking order, Kitching – who was a close friend and ally of former Labor leader Bill Shorten – made herself a substantial presence in the senate, and a strong voice on issues including China and national security.
Some of her views were more akin to those of the Liberals than to her own side, and she had good friends in the government.
For these and other reasons, she became a square peg in the round Labor hole. She was accused of leaking by Labor’s Senate leadership and frozen out, including being removed from the tactics committee.
From what we know now, she was highly upset by her treatment, but she also fought back, reportedly late last year complaining of bullying by her colleagues to a consultant brought in as part of the effort to clean up Parliament House’s toxic culture.
Earlier, she had complained to deputy Labor leader Richard Marles about how she was being treated. Marles refuses to be drawn, repeatedly saying in a Friday TV interview, “I’m just not going to walk down that path”.
Apart from the pressure she felt under in the parliamentary party, recently Kitching had been stressed by her preselection being up in the air.
Kitching’s friends allege Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong, her deputy Kristina Keneally and Katy Gallagher, manager of opposition business in the Senate, bullied her. The Australian reported Kitching and her supporters had dubbed these senators “the mean girls”.
Like Albanese, at first the senators refused to engage with the allegations. By Friday, with more information dribbling out, this had become unsustainable.
Wong, Keneally and Gallagher issued a statement saying: “The allegations of bullying are untrue. Other assertions which have been made are similarly inaccurate.”
The statement went on: “Politics is a challenging profession. 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.
"It is for this reason Senator Wong wishes to place on record a response to specific claims regarding an exchange in a meeting with Senator Kitching.”
This related to a 2019 discussion in Labor about school children participating in civil disobedience at climate protests.
Kitching’s opposition to this brought the response from Wong who said “if you had children, you might understand why there is a climate emergency.”
In Friday’s statement, Wong said when the incident was publicly reported more than two years ago she had apologised to Kitching.
“Senator Wong understood that apology was accepted. The comments that have been reported do not reflect Senator Wong’s views, as those who know her would understand, and she deeply regrets pain these reports have caused,” the statement said.
While it will seem shocking to many people that all this is playing out even before Kitching’s funeral on Monday, it is also relevant that most of the information and claims being put forward are from Kitching’s friends.
Albanese has denounced the way the Kitching issue has been “politicised”. He defended his senior Senate women, saying “politics is a really tough business”.
The latter observation is something Kitching would have understood extremely well. In the Victorian Labor party over the years she was one of the very tough players herself.
In the context of the battle between government and opposition, the internal Labor claims about how one of its women was treated reduce the scope for Labor to point fingers at the Liberals, who’ve had much trouble themselves on this front.
There have been calls for Albanese to launch an inquiry into the allegations. With the alleged victim dead, it is hard to see what this could achieve. And that’s leaving aside the political considerations, when Labor is weeks from the election.
There’s no doubt Kitching was subjected to harsh treatment by her party. Whether this is judged as “tough politics” or “bullying” is more complex, depending on who is doing the judging. It can be a fine, albeit very important, line between the two.