More women are speaking out about the alleged behaviour of controversial government MP, Andrew Laming, saying it made them feel uncomfortable.
The four women have told the ABC Dr Laming’s contact with them, both in person and online was inappropriate.
Dr Laming’s behaviour made headlines last month, after he allegedly bullied two female constituents online, including the wife of a local councillor.
The Member for Bowman apologised for the hurt and distress his communication may have caused and, on the advice of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, took medical leave to seek “empathy training”.
He then came under fire for photographing a young woman bending over at work. Dr Laming said the purpose of the photo was to “show a challenging work situation”.
The ABC can now reveal new complaints about Dr Laming’s alleged behaviour.
One academic says he made her feel uncomfortable on a domestic flight and another woman says Dr Laming persistently asked local female staff on an overseas delegation for their phone numbers.
Dr Laming is also accused of inappropriate contact with women on Facebook.
On Wednesday, he announced that he has been diagnosed with ADHD, telling some media outlets that could account for his social media addiction.
“I never ever thought that I had the disease as a medically trained person,” he said on ABC Radio.
“I didn’t realise of course, my family was paying a pretty big toll for what was some gross levels of inattention and inability to sit still, concentrate, be present, together with obviously lots of energy, which I thought was a benefit at times – a superpower.”
He also told the ABC his hyper-energetic approach can make others uncomfortable on rare occasions.
‘I was deeply uncomfortable. I felt like I was trapped’
Professor Gemma Carey met Andrew Laming on a flight from Canberra to Sydney in March 2015.
“I was sitting by the window, so I was wedged in by him. He had the aisle seat,” Professor Carey said.
“He began by sort of saying, you know, ‘What do you do?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m a politician and you would have seen me in the news this week because I was in Parliament with crude oil and I ruined one of the desks’.”
Dr Laming was referring to an incident where he poured oil on his hands during a debate about cruise ship pollution. He was suspended from the chamber for 24 hours over the stunt.
“He asked me a lot of questions, but was a very chaotic exchange … where I felt like I was being spoken at by Andrew Laming, I wasn’t really speaking to him,” Professor Carey said.
She said Dr Laming made comments about her appearance: “They were things like: ‘Are you from Canberra? You don’t look like you’re from Canberra. You look too cosmopolitan for that.’ And he said things like, ‘You have such a lovely figure in that outfit’.
“I was deeply uncomfortable. I felt like I was trapped next to someone who was just being completely inappropriate, irrespective of their job, being completely inappropriate.
“I was trying not to have to speak to him, or to respond too much. But he kind of talked at me relentlessly for the entire flight.”
Professor Carey said Dr Laming repeatedly asked her to join him for drinks at a function in Sydney.
“He said, ‘I’m going out to an art gallery after this flight. When we get to Sydney, you should come with me. We’ll have lots of cocktails, it’ll be great. Come to this art gallery,'” Professor Carey said.
“And I politely said, ‘I won’t be doing that. And I’ve actually got a plane to get on at 6am the next morning. So, I’m going to my hotel room to get on an international flight’.
“He was not deterred by my trying to not engage with him. He was not deterred by my body language in trying to shift away from him. He was not deterred when I said, ‘I’m not going to come out’.”
Professor Carey said they got off the flight in Sydney and she went to baggage carousel.
“I was really relieved. And I went and I collected my bag. And then I was exiting in Sydney Airport, to get a taxi to stay at a hotel airport, but I had to get a taxi because it was too far to walk. And as I approached the doors, he was standing there again. Only this time, he had his driver with him, who was very tall, an imposing figure … Andrew Laming again, started saying, ‘Come out, we’re going to an art gallery. Come on, come out.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m not interested. And I can’t’.”
Dr Laming offered her a lift to her hotel.
“I declined numerous times and he is remarkably persistent. And I think it’s probably many women [who have that] experience, you get to a point where you just think ‘You know what, it’ll just be easier if l just get this lift,’ against my better judgment. I said, ‘OK, I’ll accept a lift to where I’m staying, but I’m not coming out’.”
“He continued to try and get me to come out in that time. And he focused mainly on trying to get me to go out,” she said.
“I think when it became clear that I was definitely not going to go he became quite disinterested. So, then he started just playing on his phone, text messaging. And at the hotel it was the driver got out and opened the door for me [and] got me my luggage. Laming – I don’t think he even said goodbye. And then and then they just left.
“I actually called my mum and said this really strange thing has happened and told her the story. I really just needed to debrief with someone because it all felt so strange and I did feel very uncomfortable.”
Dr Laming declined repeated requests for an interview.
But in a statement, rejecting Professor Carey’s account he told the ABC: “The offer of a lift to a hotel or drink is not uncommon where work interests overlapped.”
“Six years after a flight, these allegations have been tweeted and politically tagged four times over the last month and for the first time.”
‘I found it extremely embarrassing’: Delegate
Questions about Dr Laming’s behaviour towards women extend well beyond Australia.
In 2012, Dr Laming led a delegation to the Philippines on which a delegate alleged his persistent requests for the phone numbers of female staffers caused concern.
Megan Lewis was on that delegation. At the time she was the assistant secretary of the ALP in Tasmania.
She soon became concerned about Dr Laming’s behaviour towards some local female staff on the trip.
“We travelled all over the Philippines in various different places. I started to notice that Andrew – if there was a young woman there – then Andrew would invade her personal space, in my opinion, and ask for her number – request her number very quickly. And often the woman would be shocked or unsure and give the number,” Ms Lewis said.
“When we when we met a new group or went to a new location, it was only the young women he asked for phone numbers … not the men.
“It was humiliating, I found it extremely embarrassing and stressful. To see it again and again and again and again.”
Ms Lewis said she discussed her concerns with another delegate from the Department of Finance, who called her boss in Australia to complain.
“Her boss came back to her and said, ‘Well, there’s not much you can do about it, while you’re over there, he is the lead of the delegation, unfortunately,’ and suggested that, you know, it could possibly be reported when she gets back and they can go through everything. But in the meantime, we’ve just got to try and get through it and minimise the amount of times that this happens.”
Ms Lewis says it reached the point where she confronted Dr Laming about his behaviour.
“We were all on a little bus and I said to him, ‘Andrew, seriously, why do you need her phone number? What are you going to do with it?’ … He had a big smirk on his face and said, ‘Oh, well, I might want to talk to her about, you know, learn more about her government’, and then just kind of laughed.”
Dr Laming said, “there is no complaint” with the Department of Finance.
He said in 15 years of leading delegations, he had never received a complaint and pointed out that the allegations came from an ALP campaign co-ordinator.
A Liberal party delegation member, Michael van Dissel told the ABC he saw nothing untoward and never saw or heard him ask for anyone’s phone numbers.
Laming sent teenager a friend request after reading her name tag
Back in Dr Laming’s Queensland electorate, Chynna Bennett had just turned 19 when she encountered Dr Laming in a restaurant in the Brisbane suburb of Cleveland.
It was 2019 and she had just finished her shift at the local pub.
“I went to dinner, to Taco Bell, just after me and my friend finished work. We just had some dinner, nothing of it, and as we were leaving … Andrew Laming approached me and started to have a conversation with me.”
Ms Bennett said Dr Laming asked if he could add her as a friend on Facebook. She said he told her he wanted to keep her updated on his work in the community. She reluctantly agreed.
“If it was any other person, I would have thought that was a bit weird for a middle-aged man to ask a 19-year-old to add them on Facebook,” she said.
“It wasn’t a very comfortable situation. It just felt very forced and I sort of had to engage with it.
“I felt like I had to add him back. Like, say yes to [becoming his friend on Facebook]. Because if I didn’t, I felt like I would get the 20 questions on why.
“I feel like you shouldn’t have to agree to someone just because you felt obliged to do it … because he is a high person in Parliament or a high person in your community.”
Ms Bennett said she did not tell him her name, but she was wearing a name badge, showing her first name, on her work uniform.
“Ten to 15 minutes after that I got a friend request off Facebook.”
“I felt very creeped out. He looked me up that easy and found it straight away. It wasn’t like he found me while we were in Taco Bell and said, ‘Is this your [Facebook] profile?’ As I left, he added me, so it felt a bit creepy.”
Chynna told her mother, Rebecca Bennett, who complained about Dr Laming on her public Facebook page.
Mrs Bennett wrote: “I cannot believe … Andrew Laming approached my 19yo daughter at Taco Bell Cleveland and saw her name badge on her work uniform and asked if he could add her on Facebook. She did not give him her surname as she felt uncomfortable … ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTED!”
Dr Laming said: “The office aims to add every young adult to the electorate Facebook profile, by first seeking their full name and permission. With over 70 mutual friends in common, this 19yo adult was completely enthusiastic about receiving a friend request, which they were then at liberty to either accept or decline.”
‘Are you a skatie?’
Dr Indigo Willing is an avid skateboarder. She is also an academic at Griffith University, where she has taught sociology and criminology for six years.
In October, she received an unsolicited Facebook message from Dr Laming about one of her research papers.
Dr Laming asked: “Hi, did you do the work with Dr Plage on fairness at UNSW? It is interesting.”
Dr Willing said it was unusual that he used Facebook to contact her, rather than her official email, which can be found on the university website.
“But at the same time, I did have some general knowledge about MPs and particularly Andrew Laming’s CV looked great. So, I thought, yeah, this is really nice to be contacted about my professional research. And so I was very polite and responded, ‘Yes, that’s my paper,'” Dr Willing told the ABC.
“He was also asking where’s my place … and he knew where my office was, and I hadn’t told him, so that’s a bit unusual as well,” Dr Willing said.
Dr Willing and Dr Laming exchanged messages about Dr Willing’s research project on Vietnam veterans.
Then Dr Laming asked Dr Willing about her interest in skateboarding.
“Are you a Skatie?” he asked.
“Yes, I skateboard,” Dr Willing replied.
“Me too, but not like you,” he said.
“The Bay Skate is a group of skateboarders from Redlands … They are world-class skateboarders.
“I’m happy just to meet skaties one at a time – starting with you (wink emoji)”
“That is when I began to feel very uncomfortable,” Dr Willing said.
Dr Willing did not respond to Dr Laming’s final message.
“MPs shouldn’t make academics, particularly women academics that are talking about their research feel uncomfortable in that way.”
Dr Laming said the exchange was completely routine and unremarkable.
He said most messages were initiated by Dr Willing, including her attempt to call him.
“Initially, interest in a research paper led to a search for a meeting location convenient to either work or home, as [Griffith University] has many campuses. Southbank campus was preferred,” his statement said.
“The last part drifted into music therapy which didn’t interest Mr Laming, so her prominent skateboarding interest was raised instead. While he was ‘happy to meet,’ he no longer made any effort to do so.”
Empathy training ‘sounds like nonsense’
Federal independent MP and lawyer Zali Steggall said there should be clear rules governing members of Parliament’s conduct on social media.
“We are here to serve our community and assist people that need our help and represent their views,” Ms Steggall said.
“Reaching into that private sphere of people’s life, particularly if it is uninvited, is concerning.
“In my personal opinion, this conduct is not becoming of a parliamentarian.”
Ms Steggall, a former Olympian and barrister, says when she was first elected two years ago, she was surprised by the lack of rules for parliamentarians.
“One of the biggest things I was shocked about in coming into Parliament is that there are no professional conduct rules for members of Parliament, there are no boundaries,” she said.
“That is unacceptable and needs to change.”
Professor Catharine Lumby has advised the NRL and big corporations on workplace culture and gender equality.
Professor Lumby did not think the federal government’s requirement that Dr Laming attend “empathy training” went far enough.
“Empathy training sounds to me like a quick-fix, Band-Aid fix. It sounds like nonsense to me,” she said.
“We have very good research on what kind of education you do. And it needs to be researched-based and it needs to be very engaging and it needs to be top down and bottom up.”
Professor Lumby says the federal government should stop dealing with the treatment of women as a political problem and commit to cultural change in the workplace.
“Essentially, they’re looking it at as a political issue. And they can’t get rid of Andrew Laming because it would be a by-election in the wrong climate,” she said.
“This is not about politics. This is about doing the right thing. It’s about ethics, and social justice and principles. And women are fully human. And it’s about time we were treated that way.”
The women who spoke to the ABC for this story think Dr Laming should be forced to stand down immediately.
“I think Scott Morrison just sending him off for empathy training wasn’t enough at all,” Ms Bennett said.
“He should have done a lot more to show his responsibility as a Prime Minister.”
Professor Carey said: “He’s got no place in Parliament. I don’t think he has a place in the workplace. And I don’t think empathy training is going do anything about it.”
Dr Laming said all the complaints were “utterly without substance”.
He said over two decades in office, any elected official was likely to upset or annoy a handful of both male and female opponents, as they do their job to the best of their health and ability.
“A hyper-energetic, familiar and available approach is appreciated by most, but on rare occasions makes others uncomfortable,” he said.
“If made aware, his political office had always addressed minor concerns at the time; directly and politely.”