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Richardson: Belated apology isn't courage - it's opportunism

Opinion

Former Labor MP Annabel Digance’s attempt to paint herself as a victim – and her failure to call out racism as a symptom of systemic sexism in politics – is an affront to the courage of women trying to change that culture, writes Tom Richardson.

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The Marshall Liberal Government yesterday moved to establish an inquiry into the curious case of that infamous flyer that was distributed to voters in the southern suburbs seat of Elder before the 2014 election, bearing the slogan: “Can you trust Habib?”

The Habib in question was the Liberal candidate – Carolyn Habib.

She was unsuccessful in that campaign, but is now the local MP, though she now goes by her married name, Carolyn Power.

And Labor’s successful 2014 candidate, Annabel Digance, this week tipped a bucket on her former colleagues, telling The Australian newspaper the pamphlet had been printed without her knowledge.

“It was just wrong – it should never have happened,” she said.

The flyer that Labor distributed in Elder in 2014.

“It saddens me that what should have been a proud time for me being elected to serve the community has instead been overshadowed by something so horrible.

“I also feel bad that after I was told not to say anything about it that I stayed silent out of some misplaced sense of loyalty to the party.”

She went further in a subsequent ABC Radio interview, describing the flyer as a “racist” attack on Power’s Lebanese background.

She said when she was made aware of it, she rang her campaign manager, Tim Picton, who had also overseen her two previous failed bids as Labor’s federal candidate for Boothby – and has since gone on to senior roles in Victoria’s Andrews government before being appointed WA state secretary, overseeing this month’s historic election landslide.

She insists she asked him: “Why did you send this out? Did it go to everybody? How could you do this … why didn’t you tell me?”

“And he said, ‘If we had told you what we were doing, you would never have let us do it’,” she alleged on ABC Radio.

Picton insists this claim is “untrue”.

In both interviews, and across several tweets in recent days foreshadowing her comments, Digance placed her experience squarely within the current campaign for women’s rights – whose focus has been on the nation’s parliament itself, after the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins surfaced last month.

The subsequent Marches for Justice have heralded what one prominent politician, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has described as a “reckoning”.

It is this moment – this context – that Digance has chosen to frame her mea culpa.

In social media posts tagging the likes of march organiser Janine Hendry and journalists covering the political fallout, she has railed against Labor’s “misuse of power, intimidation, bullying, ignoring, gaslighting…need I go on?!”.

“As a Labor MP I have my many stories and examples,” she said.

As for the dog-whistling election flyer… well, she argues, “like Carolyn and her family, I was a victim as well”.

Excuse me?

Yes, you heard right.

“Like you, I’ve suffered from this pamphlet as well and with what you’ve said about your family and yourself and the suffering you have been through I feel really sorry for what you’ve actually undergone,” Digance told Power on-air.

She told The Australian that “whenever I raised anything I was belittled and bullied by the Labor boys’ club and, in the end, I think they just came to regard me as an annoyance,” she said.

Alas, she lamented, the episode tarnished what should have been her proudest moment, elected to represent the people of SA, and “it overshadowed everything I ever did as an MP”.

Digance with party supporters. Photo: Facebook

Now, I don’t presume to pontificate about the travails of women in politics, but I’ve got a few things to say about that “Can you trust Habib” flyer.

In fact, I’ve said them before: having covered the episode for Channel 9 during the campaign itself, I revisited the issue both in 2015 and then 2017 – hoping that eventually, finally, someone would take responsibility and apologise.

I knew from talking to party insiders that the party line – that it wasn’t intended as racist and they had nothing to apologise for – wasn’t one shared by many within the ranks.

It was, I wrote in 2015, a racist campaign, but “I’m not calling Annabel Digance a racist”.

“She’s also, incidentally, always been a courteous and friendly interlocutor – and as a marginal seat candidate in a tightly-fought election, she would have been a brave soul to challenge the edicts of her more cynical advisers and the party machine.

“But I will say this: if I was in her position, I’d hope that I’d have the moral fortitude to say, ‘This isn’t going to run under my name.’

“I’d have hoped she would distance herself, permanently, from advisers who told her this was a legitimate, reasonable electoral tactic.

“I’d have liked her to think: ‘Being a member of parliament is worth more than this; I will not sanction this. I will not stand for this.’”

I said that while no-one on the Labor side had yet taken responsibility for it and apologised, “it’s not too late to do so now”.

Still, none did.

If they had, indeed, we wouldn’t still be talking about it now.

In fact, I was publicly called out for writing about the matter.

If there’s something good to come from this week, it’s the acknowledgement and apology from state secretary Reggie Martin, who signed off on the pamphlet but insists he didn’t realise its racist connotations.

Then-Premier Jay Weatherill himself has never changed his public stance that there was no racist intent and: “I’m not going to be lectured to by the Liberal Party.”

This week is certainly not the first time Digance has stood up on matters of women’s rights.

Indeed, in her maiden speech to parliament after that election in 2014, she said this: “We can look with eyes and mindsets and see always what is wrong, and simply complain, or we can see what needs change and set about finding that solution and gathering the imaginations and energy of others.”

“Every generation builds on every generation before… while I believe the mantra of needing good women in pivotal positions in public life still resonates, I observe that we still have a very long way to go.”

She cited Hillary Clinton: ‘Women have to dare to compete.’

“To compete we need the support of each other and our male colleagues,” she said.

There were many she graciously thanked for supporting her into parliament.

Among many, she singled out state secretary Reggie Martin, then factional boss and now party leader Peter Malinauskas and fellow SDA powerbroker Josh Peak.

She also had a special word of gratitude for her campaign manager Picton – the guy she says told her she was kept in the dark because “she’d never have allowed” the leaflet.

“I owe Tim, and probably his family—and brother Chris, here with us today—much gratitude as he worked tirelessly to ensure I was elected,” she told parliament.

“He is representative of so many of our young Labor members; he is energetic, enthusiastic, intelligent, sharp, highly skilled and politically savvy.”

Hardly a condemnation really, was it?

Now, look.

I get that someone as aggrieved about her campaign as Digance now says she was might have felt pressured into silence by the brutal authority of the Labor machine.

But surely it’s one thing to sit in muted frustration – it’s quite another to lavish your party’s factional bosses with such unsolicited public praise – particularly knowing how much scrutiny that maiden speech would have been under by the Liberal members opposite given what transpired on the hustings.

And that includes more than just the flyer.

Digance didn’t mention – and wasn’t asked – this week about another ugly allegation that surfaced about the campaign.

On the eve of the election, police were reportedly called after an altercation between campaign staff from both camps – which included Digance’s husband Greg.

Greg and Annabel Digance. Photo: Facebook

Habib told NewsCorp’s Sunday Mail at the time she had complained to a polling booth official about Greg Digance’s behaviour, saying: “From the moment I got here (he was) just in my face, taking photos all the time… I said: ‘Could you please stop taking photos’ [but] he continued.”

Greg Digance told the paper in 2014 he “refuted” the claims, and referred the reporter to Labor Party campaign management.

After my subsequent article was published in 2015, Habib’s campaign manager – senior Liberal MLC David Ridgway – went further in a speech to the Upper House, under parliamentary privilege.

“Annabel Digance’s husband, Greg, was taunting Carolyn Habib’s volunteers in the weeks leading up to the distribution of that flyer—that racist flyer—with things like ‘We’ve got a plan for her,’ ‘We’ve got some stuff on her,’ ‘We’ve got some dirt on her,’” Ridgway told parliament.

“He was continually taunting her volunteers.”

I put all these allegations again to Greg Digance this morning via text and email after he didn’t answer my phone calls, but he is yet to respond.

If correct, would that sort of behaviour also be part of this Labor culture Annabel Digance now denounces?

Will she address the claims at least?

That telling maiden speech also went at length into Digance’s love for the Elder electorate, delving into its history.

Worth remembering then, that when a subsequent boundary redistribution shifted the seat from a Labor marginal to a nominal Liberal seat with a 4.3 per cent margin, Digance sought to shift to the neighbouring safe haven of Badcoe.

Just more Labor “gaslighting”, she might say?

Except that she confirmed as much herself, telling InDaily in 2017 that retaining Elder “would be a challenge, if I’m really honest” and that “certainly the opportunity of Badcoe being more winnable is clearly appealing”.

“Elder is just a name – I’m looking at the areas and having discussions with the party about where best to run, absolutely,” she said at the time.

“The communities I’ve worked for are very divided, because of this invisible boundary [and] it remains to be seen, really, where I end up… I’ll wait to see when the nominations open.”

She didn’t get that far, because then-Premier Jay Weatherill went on radio and said in no uncertain terms he expected her to run in her current seat.

After she duly lost her seat, her name popped up in dispatches when former Deputy Premier John Rau joined Weatherill in retiring from parliament, with suggestions she was keen to seek preselection for his seat of Enfield.

These suggestions, she now says, were more Labor “gaslighting” – though why anyone in the party would bring her name up a year after she left parliament just to cause her damage is anyone’s guess.

“The last time I had my name in the paper about preselection was with Enfield and I contacted the party and said ‘I don’t appreciate you putting my name in the so-called mix for Enfield when that is not my intention’,” she told ABC Radio this week.

Ok, let’s just hang on a second here.

When her name was mentioned in connection with Rau’s seat in late 2018, I asked her about it, and she did nothing to dampen speculation.

“I do think we need a woman to run in that seat,” Digance told InDaily at the time.

“I haven’t had any serious discussions about it [but] we’ll see what happens… it’s an interesting thought… it remains to be seen.”

Party sources also told me at the time she had picked up a nomination form for her old seat of Elder after another boundary redraw last year made it a far more winnable prospect.

At the time, I sent her a message saying: “I understand you’re nominating to recontest Elder. Can you confirm?”

She didn’t reply.

I’ve since seen an email she sent party administrators last September, which reads: “I have just now spoken with Reggie and he has advised me to email you and request a state candidate nomination pack be sent to me please.”

Yet she was equivocal about such questions in her radio interview, confirming only that “I’ve spoken to the party about that possibility [of running again] and I kept my conversations open with them, but I would’ve struggled to actually have aligned with the Labor Party anyway”.

I’ve been having conversations with the ALP about all sorts of things, but in particular I still have conversations with the ALP about this horrific campaign that they ran and the way they behave to organise those who want to rise to the top,” she said.

When pressed, she told her interviewers David Bevan and Ali Clarke that they were “making it sound very simplistic,” suggesting “speaking out can be very easy”.

“Speaking out in these situations is not easy,” she went on.

“If you speak to any of those women just recently, or anyone in politics who speaks out, you know that you’re actually going to be really on the outer, you know you can run the risk of character assassination.”

These are fair points.

But let’s not forget it was Carolyn Habib that was the victim of this campaign. Not Digance.

Hearing Digance trying to place her own failure to speak out about that in the context of women whose bravery has prompted a genuine moment of national reflection smacks of awful opportunism that exploits, rather than celebrates, the genuine courage of others.

Not only did she not condemn the controversies about Elder in her maiden speech – she didn’t even address them.

Nor did she choose to speak out in 2015, or 2017, or for three years after losing her seat, during which time she appeared to explore at least two further opportunities to re-enter politics.

I’ve said before that, in my view, no-one on the Labor side who is not irretrievably one-eyed, concertedly strategic, wilfully naïve or, indeed, a racist can deny that this was a racist campaign, the lowest of a litany of Labor’s campaigning lowlights.

If the Libs want to now set up an inquiry into how it happened, all well and good – although let’s not pretend it’s anything other than political opportunism.

They are, after all, politicians.

But let’s not pretend Digance’s bid to rewrite her own history isn’t political opportunism as well.

Seizing on the efforts of women who have made genuine sacrifices to push for cultural change, in a move that looks closer to score-settling than a belated apology, isn’t courage.

It’s actually the opposite.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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