Will Fowles, the ALP, women & Parliament culture scandal

Victorians have been scratching their heads for the last few weeks wondering what is really behind the mysterious resignation of Will Fowles. The premier, Daniel Andrews, told us he was personally notified of an accusation late on Friday, 4 August. The following day, Saturday, 5 August, Dan asked Will to resign from the parliamentary caucus. Furthermore, Dan's public statements suggest he is taking sides with an anonymous accuser.

Will's Wikipedia page gives some basic facts about Will's career up to this point but I felt it would be useful to fill in some gaps, going right back to student politics, while simultaneously looking at the problems of the Victorian parliament. Let's not forget where the name Victoria comes from.

To put it in perspective, here are some photos I took in Canberra. The man speaking to the group is the highly distinguished leader of the party at that time, Kim Beazley. In the second photo, Will is the student holding a coffee cup and Mr Beazley appears to be looking directly at him. The student on Will's left, not visible in the photos, would become one of the Premier's most trusted advisors before moving into the private sector.

As noted in a previous blog, I was fortunate enough to receive my first reference letter from Mr Beazley after creating a web site about Native Title.

Mr Beazley has no connection with the current problems in Victoria. These pictures show us how Australian political parties have opened their doors to young people and given people opportunities, for better or for worse.

Will Fowles, Kim Beazley, Juliana Dickinson, Matt Rocks, Natalie Waghorne, Alan Black, Canberra, 1999


Will Fowles, Kim Beazley, Matt Rocks, Juliana Dickinson, Canberra, 1999

An overreaction?

When a certain scandal errupted in the federal parliament, the party responsible was widely criticized for not doing enough to support the people involved and find the truth. In this latest scandal, we have the opposite: Dan may have reacted too quickly and I feel he has gone too far in repeating the accusations publicly before the police had any time to begin their work.

If Dan has overreacted then this is proof of the extent to which our political leaders are now terrified of social media. In other words, social media has undermined both democracy and the principles of due process.

Blame the culture, not the person

According to Harvard Business Review, blaming the person and expelling them doesn't do much to stop the problem happening again with somebody else. The real issue is toxic workplaces, not toxic people.

While direct interactions with “bad bosses” can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse.

Dan's statement suggests that he is being tough on Will in order to protect women.

I take the safety of staff, the safety of employees, the safety of everybody in a workplace very, very seriously and it's about living your values,

Yet if Dan does nothing about the culture then those words are meaningless, he is just using Will as a scapegoat.

The same could be said for the scandal in Spanish football today: even if Luis Rubiales were to resign, as long as the culture remains the same, the resignation would be only a symbolic victory with no practical impact for the status of women.

Monash University alumni

Dan and Will are both alumni of Monash University, Dan graduated in 1996 and Will arrived there in 1997, the same year I started my studies at University of Melbourne. Looking at the photos from Canberra, the student sitting next to Will is wearing a Lot's Wife T-shirt, that is the Monash student newspaper. The Labor students at my own university, Melbourne, were largely divided into different factional groups who couldn't agree on anything while at Monash, there was a large and effective group of Labor students who worked together effectively and in close association with their local member of federal parliament, Alan Griffin. Crucial to the current scandal, after Dan graduated in 1996, he was working in Mr Griffin's office from 1997 to 1999. Part of Dan's role involved recruiting and nurturing the Young Labor group in his alma mater, Monash University. Dan was responsible for that group at exactly the same time that Will was recruited and groomed to become the Labor president of the Monash Student Association in 2000.

Therefore, Dan and Will go back a long way and Dan has been influential in Will's career and his formation as a politician and a leader.

Frankenstein didn't create himself, neither did the current problems engulfing Will.

This further adds to my perception that Dan may have overreacted. Dan may have been terrified that any bad feeling about the matter may tarnish his own office or that if he failed to act at all, he may have been accused of protecting a friend.

Coincidentally, this same group from Monash was very supportive of me when I was elected into the National Union of Students.

A wicked generation

In 1995, a right-wing group of Labor students at La Trobe University infamously stole a bunch of ballot papers in the student elections. They got caught and resigned. Nonetheless, rather than learning their lesson, these tactics were simply shifted elsewhere.

The first year that Will and I were engaged in student politics, 1997, was coincidentally the same year that Young Labor was suspended for election fraud. The party papered over the Latrobe University (1995) and Young Labor (1997) scandals. They simply didn't hold another Youth Conference for another five or six years. Shortly after a I graduated, some of the same people drove the Melbourne University Student Union into a multi-million dollar bankruptcy. Some people from that generation progressed all the way into the cabinet at the state and federal level.

With experience like this, newcomers to student politics like Will and I had a baptism in fire.

Another one of our contemporaries is the legendary Nathan Murphy. While other governments around the world have been wrestling with the question of how to regulate AirBNB, Nathan was well ahead of the game, possibly being the first politician anywhere to invite his donors to come and trash somebody else's home with him as part of his fundraising campaign.

An exclusive $500-a-head fundraiser for failed Victorian Labor MP Nathan Murphy could end up in the courts after a borrowed apartment used for the shindig was trashed, male and female underwear was dumped on the floor and a $700 coat went missing from the premises.

The apartment’s distraught owner, Michelle Matthews — who is not associated with the ALP and rented out her home and business headquarters as a favour to Murphy’s 26-year-old girlfriend — was shocked to return home two days after the booze-up to find her $1 million dollar pad turned upside down with detritus littered everywhere.

The bed was left unmade, the kitchen filthy, and a $700 Karen Millen trench coat and Black Body brand dress were nowhere to be seen. Disposable male razor blades, Brut deodorant and a his and hers undies set were also found festering.

Here is one of my pictures of Nathan in a panel with Cheryl Kernot and Jenny Macklin.

Cheryl Kernot, Nathan Murphy

Harassment and abuse of women in politics

As long as Australia has a whole bunch of female refugees locked up in concentration camps, I don't think any Australian politician can jump up on his high horse and look down his nose at other men who abuse women.

This is the very issue I called out when I resigned my membership of the ALP in 2013. The federal government had created a video humiliating a bunch of refugees. They included imagery of vulnerable women sitting on the ground in tears. In hindsight, I was right to quit over that video: the people in the video were from Iran. In the news from 2022, some of those women are being shot in the genitals for not wearing headscarves. The ALP is complicit in that abuse because the ALP sent them back to their abusers and even boasted about it.

After Dan's announcement about Will, it looks like it took more than two weeks before any alleged victim decided to make a complaint to the police. Nonetheless, when a complaint was lodged, the police chose to announce it on the same day that Malka Leifer was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Crimes involving harassment and abuse are often characterized as men versus women. If we genuinely want to help victims and prevent further abuse then we need to eliminate this bias. Leifer may be one of Australia's most prolific female predators. Abuse is about power, not gender.

It was revealed that a member of parliament, Michael Danby, wrote multiple letters supporting Leifer's request to come and work in Australia as headmistress of a strict Jewish school in Elwood. Danby's support helped give Leifer power over teenage victims.

As luck would have it, I was living in Danby's district. A female student from Monash University and I were involved in resurrecting the Elwood branch of the Labor Party right in the middle of Danby's federal district.

Despite our enthusiasm for recruiting our friends into the branch, neither of us had any enthusiasm to go out of our way working on Danby's campaign for re-election. During the federal election of November 2001, both of us went to help friends in other districts.

Our next meeting of the branch was three days after the election. The two of us students were standing close together talking about our weekend when Danby arrived. Danby walked over to us, completely ignored me, focused all his anger on the young woman and bellowed out a question about why she wasn't handing out his how-to-vote cards on Saturday. Danby's voice was so aggressive that one of Danby's minders immediately stepped in between Danby and the woman and began moving Danby away from us.

Neither of us had done anything to help Danby's re-election, why did he ignore me and focus his anger on this woman? It could be cowardice, he is afraid to raise his voice at another male. He may have had the perception that a young male volunteer simply doesn't bring in as many votes as a smiling young woman. It could be misogyny, a perception that the woman has some kind of slave-like duty to do a bit of work for every politician.

I had never seen anything like this before in the ALP. To emphasize the disparity of the situation, I have a photo of some of the Monash students with the former finance minister. One of the other students is now secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council. The smallest woman in the photo is the person Danby had directed his frustrations at. The reason I'm sharing this photo is not to identify the woman, rather, it is to emphasize the disparity in size between her and somebody like Danby.

Anna Bicknell, Lindsay Tanner, Sarah McDowell, Luke Hilakari

Here is one of the women humiliated by that video from the ALP in 2013:

ALP, women, Iran, refugees, humiliation, abuse, harassment

Robust representation and context switches

On the other hand, if you elect somebody to represent your district in the parliament, you want them to be a strong and vocal advocate for your interests.

To give an example, a major scandal in Australia was the Robodebt debt recovery scheme. Victims committed suicide. Senior managers in the public service demonstrated an extraordinary level of incompetence. The manner in which Danby spoke to my colleague was totally inappropriate in a local community meeting. On the other hand, many people would be happy to see their local member firmly rebuking those public servants responsible for the suicides.

This reveals one of the challenges of human psychology: we expect people like Will Fowles and Michael Danby to speak up in the parliament and then in the blink of an eye we expect them to completely change their posture and act like a normal neighbor or colleague.

Grooming a donor for the party

From the very first time I was introduced to Will, I can remember people mentioning that he came from an incredibly wealthy family. His father ran a very large and well known vehicle auction enterprise.

Political parties are always looking for sources of donations. A volunteer who is perceived to have a cash machine in his pocket was certainly going to be noticed at every level of the party leadership from a very early age.

Compared to other countries with a two-party political system, the Labor party in Australia is particularly close to the trade union movement. Nonetheless, at that particular time the party had been making an effort to make themselves more accessible to the business world. Open-minded business owners and investors were being courted with opportunities to have breakfast with party leaders. Connecting with people like Will was entirely consistent with this strategy.

When somebody is endorsed by a political party, this doesn't imply the party will pay for their local campaign expenses. Candidates are expected to engage in fundraising and contribute their own personal funds to campaign expenses. When Will was selected as a candidate, the party would have had significant confidence in his ability to personally pay for any shortfall in fundraising for his local campaign.

Car auctions and conflicts of interest

For many years, Australia had protectionist policies around car manufacturing. Major car manufacturers would build new cars in Australia. Their factories created lots of jobs and export revenues. However, they were heavily subsidized by the government. The Government eventually abandoned these policies and the car factories closed down between 2016 and 2020.

One way the government subsidized this industry was by allowing government agencies, educational institutions and health care to buy the new cars tax free, well below the retail price. Even 12 months after the purchase, the second-hand value of the car on the regular market would be higher than the tax-free price paid to buy it.

Consequently, many of those organizations would buy the cars, use them for 12 months and auction them for a small profit.

The Melbourne University Student Union (MUSU) had engaged in this practice. I was on the relevant committee in 1998. I don't know if Monash Student Association had a similar fleet of cars for their managers but it wouldn't surprise me.

When these cars had to be disposed of, they would end up in the hands of companies like Fowles Auction Group. Here is their web site from the year 2000, before they were acquired by Manheim. Special purpose Government car auctions are conducted several times per week, with auctioneers like Fowles keeping a commission on each sale.

I'm not aware of Will having any conflict of interest in such matters, nonetheless, various people in the ALP would have had a very good perception of his connection to the auction system that was a key ingredient in the protectionist money-go-round.

Blackmail risk

Rich people and politicians are obvious targets for blackmailers. When somebody is both rich and a politician then the risk of blackmail is even higher.

Why was there a three week delay between the day when the Premier's office learned about a dispute and the day the alleged victim filed a complaint with police? Did the alleged victim offer to withhold their complaint, either in exchange for money or Will's complete resignation from the parliament? If this type of behavior has transpired then it would be a serious risk to our democracy.

Apprehension about defamation, blackmail and dirty tricks deters many good people from volunteering to run for public office.

Toxic culture, dead-end jobs and excessive working hours

The issue of toxic culture, as opposed to toxic people, has already been raised in this blog.

You don't have to be an expert or even watch very many news reports to conclude that there is a toxic culture in politics.

Some of the issues are not particularly hard to diagnose.

Once again, I'd like to call out Dan's hypocrisy. His statement about Will claims that he wants to protect government employees, nonetheless, in the weeks that parliament is sitting, people are expected to hang around there well into the early hours of the morning several nights in a row. An alleged assault is bad but overworking is not?

Consider how this works in practice: an MP from a remote village is given extra money to pay for accommodation in a hotel close to the parliament building. An MP from one of the inner city districts will have a journey of less than fifteen minutes by taxi back to their home. MPs like Will are in the most awkward position: his home is too close to justify the cost of a hotel room but it is still quite a long way to drive at 3am when the parliament closes. Some of the MPs representing the outer regions of Melbourne are having to choose between a one hour ride home in a taxi or sleeping in their office to get an extra hour of sleep.

Looking at Will's profile, if he had chosen a career in the corporate world, instead of politics, he would already be in the boardroom of a company. Yet in politics, he does not have a position in the cabinet, he is relegated to the back-benches. While Australian sporting teams put their best athletes first, political parties don't. Important positions in the cabinet are often assigned by deals between the factions and a system of patronage, whereby people who spent a long time recruiting supporters and forming alliances will displace people with actual talent. The skills required to stuff ballots are very different from the skills required to run a department.

Being outside the cabinet on the backbenches, somebody like Will may have simply felt he was twiddling his thumbs in a dead-end job. This feeling of being undervalued, combined with the excessive working hours and ready availability of alcohol may have all contributed to whatever has gone wrong. Whether the accusations are true or false, if the culture doesn't change, it is only a matter of time before something similar happens again with another parliamentarian.


On 18 July, Victoria canceled the 2026 Commonwealth Games. A few weeks later, on 18 August, they announced a $A380 million compensation fee would be paid to completely end their obligations to host the games.

When Dan asked for Will's resignation, he may have been hoping the issues would go away just as easily as the Commonwealth Games. The resignation was announced on a Saturday night, in the hope it would be forgotten by Monday morning. Yet I suspect that the opposite will happen. This issue may linger for months or years.

If there is a trial, it could be another media circus.

If Will is vindicated, he will hang around in the parliament and be a thorn in the side of the administration.

Opportunists will see how Will was forced to resign in less than 24 hours, with no due process, and they may try making tactical accusations against other individuals who are personally connected to the Premier's office. Quoting Dan's own words::

This matter has been handled very quickly ... You have seen a live demonstration, a real-time demonstration of how we handle complaints, ... If there had been other complaints they would have been dealt with identically to the way we have dealt with this one.

Was this justice or was it more like a summary execution?

Talented individuals will no longer want to risk their reputations by participating in politics at all.

Photographing women

Most of the young women I photographed have been far more successful than the men. This is a photo I took of Natasha Stott Despoja back in the 1990s, she is now Australia's representative to the UN Committee to end discrimination against women (CEDAW):

Natasha Stott Despoja