Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020



5:50 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak about bullying and its insidious impact. This topic is particularly relevant this week, the same week we have acknowledged Safer Internet Day in a bid to raise awareness about online safety. I shared my own message about internet safety on Tuesday and spoke about it with journalists that morning. Many of my Tasmanian parliamentary colleagues, including the member for Bass, Bridget Archer; Senator Helen Polley; and the member for Lyons, Brian Mitchell, also took to social media to add their support to the online safety message through the course of that day. Fellow Tasmanian Senator Catryna Bilyk spoke about internet safety in her adjournment speech last night, building on a motion she moved in this chamber earlier this week.

Bullying is not a new concept, but society's attitude towards allowing bullying has shifted in such a way that it is imperative we address such attacks and the resulting consequences. The day after Safer Internet Day, Jo Palmer, a highly respected member of the Launceston community, was endorsed as the Liberal Party's candidate for Rosevears in the upcoming Tasmanian upper house elections. Once news hit that Jo was running for Rosevears on Wednesday morning, the trolls hit. Last week Jo was being praised as a beloved news anchor, but this week the tide has turned and the negative comments and attacks on Jo's character have started now that she has decided to enter politics.

These attacks were being led by some of our federal politicians, who chose to lower themselves to the level of trolls. Labor member for Lyons, Brian Mitchell, posted about why we should celebrate Safer Internet Day and spread the message about what it means to be a responsible online citizen on his Facebook page on Tuesday. He went on to say that the online environment is 'toxic and dangerous', and to call it out when we see it. Unfortunately, I need to do just that, as Mr Mitchell himself showed just how toxic he could be by taking to Twitter once he heard Jo's news regarding the Rosevears election. Mr Mitchell said:

Disappointing to learn that Jo Palmer's personal values include cutting health, keeping wages low and failing to tackle climate change.

In contrast, another Tasmanian colleague, Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, also shared the news about Jo Palmer's candidacy on his Facebook page. In his post, he congratulated Jo for putting up her hand up to run for public office. While Senator Whish-Wilson wondered how Jo, as a 'personable, popular and likeable person', would 'reconcile her worldviews with such Liberal Party values', he specifically asked those who responded to his post to 'be kind and keep comments respectful'.

As Senator Whish-Wilson points out, Jo Palmer is a well-loved journalist and important member of our community. Jo left Seven Tasmania as the lead news anchor, presenting her last bulletin on Friday night, after spending more than two decades at the station. She started as a junior journalist in the Hobart office in September 1996 and has been a fixture on Tasmanian television screens for much of the time since. Crowned as Miss Tasmania and then Miss Australia in 1993, Jo was first seen on Tasmanian television screens as host of the state's first lifestyle program, The Good Life. Her profile was instrumental in making Seven's nightly news program one of the most-watched news programs per audience capita in Australia.

As ambassador for Tasmania's Clown Doctors, City Mission's Inside Out 4 Kids and Give Me 5 for Kids, Jo's long-term philanthropic pursuits are evident, as is her service to the community as a regular event host. Jo has also been a recipient of the Tasmanian of the Year Award for her charity and community work. When Seven Tasmania announced on Facebook Jo's departure earlier this month, there was a huge outpouring of support for her, with many fans leaving messages on the page and businesses creating products in her honour, such as Phoenix Launceston's Jo Palmer-giana or the JO-NUT, created by Circle of Life Doughnut Co. in Hobart. Some bereft fans contacted the station to see if the reason she was leaving was because she was ill. That is how much Tasmanians love Jo.

This trend of bullying others, whether online or offline, is not acceptable. We live in a country where we enjoy the right to political views and the ability to share those views with others. If somebody takes offence at those views, bullying should not be their recourse, and our political representatives should know better.

My parliamentary colleague Mrs Bridget Archer MP spoke last year about the extent of the bullying, discrimination and intimidation she had experienced during the 10 years she was a councillor and mayor at George Town Council. Mrs Archer told ABC Tasmania presenter Leon Compton that, as a public figure, it was difficult to show vulnerability 'because it is seen as weakness'. She explained that showing vulnerability could be seen as an opportunity to exploit that person. Mrs Archer went on to say that she thought that, while social media had exacerbated these issues, they had always existed.

People have been taking advantage of another's vulnerability for their own gain for a long time. It is sad to see that this still continues now. While serving the George Town public, Mrs Archer was the subject of anonymous letterboxing campaigns, malicious and anonymous complaints and unprovoked abuse on the street. Attacks came from her colleagues on the council too. Despite the strength and resilience Mrs Archer exhibits, she says these attacks impacted her and her family so much that she had to consider whether she actually wanted to run as a candidate for the seat of Bass. She told Leon, 'It took an enormous toll on me … it nearly killed me at one point,' and that she experienced anxiety, panic attacks and a breakdown where she had suicidal thoughts. Thankfully, Mrs Archer sought support from other colleagues on the council and within the wider local government organisation, as well as professional treatment.

Despite calling out bullying at a local government level, Mrs Archer has continued to be subjected to such attacks now she is a federal member. Senator Helen Polley repeatedly mentions Mrs Archer negatively in her social media posts, and there have been occasions where these mentions have been outright attacks. Despite also joining her federal Labor colleagues in their support of Safer Internet Day this week, Senator Polley has contributed to the bullying behaviour we see so frequently on the internet. These actions are, unfortunately, typical of the union bred, union fed and union led Labor Party. All of us in this chamber know that the union movement has a vast history of bullying employees, employers and even government officials. This and all other forms of bullying need to stop, and both the member for Lyons and Senator Polley should be ashamed of their actions.

All colleagues here tonight would acknowledge that leadership can be difficult at times, especially when we, as community leaders and representatives, have to make difficult decisions that we know will not be popular. But when those attacks move from rejecting the decision to rejecting the person making it, a line has been crossed. By all means attack the policy. But respect the person. Every day, we could all say we've seen examples of horrible things people have said to us, or about us, whether aimed at us or at one of our family members or colleagues. What we need to remember is that there is a real person at the end of that attack. Even if our opinion or decision is divisive, and even if we disagree, we need to look harder to find the common ground. Respect is what is needed here, and a return to civilised and polite behaviour, not hatred or threats of violence against one another.

As Mrs Archer reminds us, people who enter political life, from whatever political colour or persuasion that may be, almost without exception have the very best of intentions to try and do the right thing for their communities. Senator Whish-Wilson's comments about Jo Palmer touch on this as well. I am sad to say that the situation Mrs Archer described when being interviewed by ABC News is not unique to her. I've spoken with, and heard others talk about, similar experiences. Our eSafety Commissioner tells us cyberbullying includes: abusive texts and emails; hurtful messages, images or videos; imitating others online; excluding others online; humiliating other online; spreading nasty online gossip and chat; and creating fake accounts to trick someone or humiliate them.

In the 12 months to June 2017, one in five young Australians reported being socially excluded, threatened or abused online. In the same time period, around 20 per cent of young people surveyed admitted to behaving negatively to a peer online, with more than 90 per cent of those being the victim of similar behaviour themselves. While we're teaching young Australians to stay safe when online, it would pay for us, as adults, to check our own behaviour. Bullying is widespread. The bullying experienced by Jo Palmer and Bridget Archer shows this to be the case. Isn't it about time we started respecting people who are willing to serve their communities? The fact that Safer Internet Day was held this week, and recognised by parliamentarians, is a reminder we should be heeding.

Senate adjourned at 18 : 59