Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle, the tabloid texts and the 'contest of...

Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle, the tabloid texts and the 'contest of reputations'

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He is the most high-profile Australian political figure to have been accused of sexual harassment following the #metoo movement that erupted in the aftermath of allegations against the US film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Melbourne’s longest-serving lord mayor and former Victorian opposition leader for the Liberal party, Robert Doyle, went on extended leave in December after his colleague, Councillor Tessa Sullivan, resigned and made a formal complaint to the council alleging that Doyle had sexually harassed and indecently assaulted her.

Doyle described the allegations as “thoroughly abhorrent” and vowed to clear his name. “My decision to take leave must not be interpreted as any concession or admission,” he said.

The allegations include that Doyle had grabbed Sullivan’s breast and made explicit comments about oral sex towards her. The council’s chief executive, Ben Rimmer, said the investigation into those allegations would be a quick a one and the process would be thorough. Nearly every councillor was interviewed by Christmas. The results of that investigation are expected within days.

Sullivan, a lawyer, has made no comment since the story broke. Earlier this month, Doyle employed the public relations firm Newgate to manage his reputation, though has not agreed to media interviews.

On Monday the Herald Sun ran a story containing a series of text messages between Doyle and Sullivan sent between July and November when the alleged abuse is said to have occurred. These text messages show that Sullivan once called Doyle “darl” and, in another text, thanked him for his support.

Miche Paterson, a partner with Newgate, said Newgate did not provide the Herald Sun with the text messages. Once the story broke, Paterson said a reporter from Fairfax contacted her asking to see the text messages, which Newgate then provided because the story had already broken. But Paterson denied reports by Fairfax Media that Newgate had dropped the texts to the Herald Sun.

“Our role has really been more about inbound calls coming to Robert and him not having capacity to respond,” she said.

Most media outlets ignored the Herald Sun story or did not give prominence to the texts once they emerged. The Herald Sun led with the texts in their front-page story on Monday under the headline “bombshell texts in lord mayor probe”. They ran the story alongside a photograph of Sullivan wearing a bikini and holding her toddler. Sullivan has threatened to sue the Herald Sun for defamation, with her lawyer Chris Stakis telling Fairfax the “selective” text messages and statements were “intended to discredit” Sullivan before the investigation was complete. Guardian Australia has also contacted Stakis for comment.

Another Melbourne city councillor, Cathy Oke, has since told council investigators that Doyle once tried to kiss her and, on another occasion, clutched her thigh under a table. Doyle told Fairfax Media that he and Oke had a “very warm, collegiate and professional relationship” and added they “will often greet one another with a kiss but any suggestion beyond that is simply untrue and categorically denied”.

Doyle has every right to defend his reputation and to employ a public relations firm to do so, says Prof Catharine Lumby, professor of media at Macquarie University.

“It is legal of course but it shows at the very least poor judgment in my point of view,” she said. “Hiring a PR firm turns this into a contest of reputations. But allegations of this kind go well beyond personal brand.

Robert Doyle and Daniel Andrews



The premier, Daniel Andrews, right, could possibly intervene and use his powers to remove Robert Doyle as lord mayor. Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP

“I think it’s contemptible that text messages like this would be released during an investigation and that a media organisation would cover them in the way the Herald Sun did.”

The lord mayorship is Melbourne is not merely a ceremonial post and is directly elected.

“What this does is it tends to give the very strong impression that after the prime minister comes the premier and after the premier comes the lord mayor,” said Dr Nicholas Economou, a political scientist with Monash University. “Another reason the position is seen as very important is because Melbourne CBD is seen as a hub for development and commercial activity, and so state governments like a stable Melbourne council in order to attract investment.”

Doyle is the first Melbourne lord mayor elected to serve three consecutive terms and has worked with both Liberal and Labor state governments. He is viewed as a successful negotiator with both of the major parties.

He also managed to rebuild his standing in politics after challenging Denis Napthine for the leadership of the Liberal party in 2002. He succeeded in ousting Napthine but suffered a disastrous defeat in the state election that year. Doyle’s approval rating fell and two years later he resigned.

His subsequent career in local government seemed to restore his reputation. His leadership even survived a celebrity led backlash to his plans to redevelop the historic Queen Victoria market during the election campaign of 2016.

“He was seen as a good guy keen to go on radio and talk about the city, someone open to criticism and proactive,” Economou said. “The Queen Victoria market issue gave an insight into Doyle style, that is, there are committees, discussion papers and discussion groups everywhere, and everyone gets to have a say.

“There is also, though, a view that he is someone who enjoys the higher life, good food and good wine, which sometimes doesn’t translate very well in politics, but in his case it doesn’t seemed to have harmed him too much.”

The indecent assault allegations, however, were extremely serious, Economou said. There was a chance that the premier, Daniel Andrews, could intervene and use his powers to remove Doyle as lord mayor if the controversy deepened or council was seen as unstable, he said.

“At the moment the government is distracted by reports of a crimewave but, once the investigation is finished and the report is handed down, then it becomes an issue for state government that they can’t ignore,” he said.



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