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Scott Morrison intended to leave his abuse apology to the presiding officers, as he warned colleagues ‘if you take my legs out … you will suffer’. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: PM planned not to deliver abuse apology

Scott Morrison after his statement of acknowledgement of harassment in parliament this week.
Scott Morrison after his statement of acknowledgement of harassment in parliament this week.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s apology to abuse victims in Parliament House this week was not supposed to happen.

Until just hours before the parliamentary apology was delivered, the prime minister intended for it to come from the presiding officers alone.

In the speech on Tuesday morning, Morrison apologised to all former parliamentary staff and others who had experienced bullying, harassment and sexual assault. He directly addressed former government staffer Brittany Higgins, who was watching from the public gallery and whose alleged rape by a former colleague in a ministerial office in 2019 prompted an overhaul of procedures and a national reckoning on attitudes to women, as well as the apology itself. Her former colleague, Bruce Lehrmann, has pleaded not guilty to rape.

Morrison said he was personally sorry for “the terrible things that happened here”. He also abandoned his practice of referring to Higgins only by her first name, this time calling her “Ms Higgins”.

But The Saturday Paper has confirmed that Morrison’s speech – and the one that followed from Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese – was only added to the proceedings hours before it was made. It appears Morrison decided to speak to avoid Albanese upstaging him.

Parliament’s apology on Tuesday to staff and others who have experienced abuse in the course of their work in parliamentary workplaces was originally scheduled to be delivered only by the speaker of the house of representatives and president of the senate.

This had been proposed and discussed at a February 3 meeting involving senior representatives from the government, opposition, Greens and independents.

But when this was conveyed to the opposition leader’s office on Monday, Albanese’s staff are understood to have told the prime minister’s staff that Albanese wanted to speak.

Morrison’s staff responded that neither was scheduled to be speaking and that the presiding officers alone would deliver the statement of acknowledgement, which implemented the first of 28 recommendations from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ review of parliamentary workplaces, entitled “Set the Standard”.

The issue went back and forth throughout Monday. When Albanese’s staff insisted on Tuesday morning that the Labor leader would speak regardless of what Morrison chose to do, Morrison’s staff changed their position. The prime minister would deliver a speech first.

Both Morrison’s office and Albanese’s office declined to comment on the speaking list. A government spokesperson told The Saturday Paper: “The multiparty Leadership Taskforce is overseeing the implementation of the recommendations of the Jenkins review. As the minutes from the first meeting of the taskforce last week state, this includes the delivery of the joint statement of acknowledgement.”

What is actually a brief summary published by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet indicates the taskforce, which will oversee the implementation of Jenkins’ recommendations, discussed the delivery of the statement, along with the establishment of a new joint committee on parliamentary standards. But it does not give details.

The Saturday Paper has been told the proposal that the statement should be delivered by the presiding officers alone came from the government-appointed chair, former senior bureaucrat Kerri Hartland, but that Labor representatives said they believed the leaders should also speak.

When the prime minister’s speech was delivered just after midday on Tuesday, its wording was strong and absent the cautious qualifications of his earlier remarks on the subject. Morrison spoke of “generations of culture” in Parliament House and “a power imbalance, over time, that has been exploited” in the form of “terrible, traumatic and harrowing experiences”.

“Over many decades, an ecosystem, a culture, was perpetuated where bullying, abuse, harassment and, in some cases, even violence, became normalised,” he said.

“We don’t shy, nor have we sought to silence the valid and just complaints of people, because there is fear about electoral consequences. I am sorry. We are sorry.”

Morrison also apologised personally and directly to Higgins, looking up to where she was sitting alongside four other campaigners for change, and Hartland.

The advocates’ presence in the chamber was also a late addition. They were initially not invited to watch the apology. Independent MP Zali Steggall facilitated their attendance at the last minute, as her guests, accompanied by one of her staff.

“The place that should have been a place of safety and contribution turned out to be a nightmare,” Morrison said. “But I am sorry for far more than that. I’m sorry for all of those who came before Ms Higgins and endured the same. But she had the courage to stand, and so here we are.”

Albanese spoke next, similarly addressing both the former staffer and everyone else who participated in the Jenkins review. “You have torn through a silence that has acted as the life support system for the most odious of status quos,” he said. “To describe your experiences is to relive them. I say to everyone who took part: that took a level of courage that you should never have needed to show, but you did, and we thank you for it.”

Albanese also acknowledged those who had experienced misconduct but were unable to participate. “Indeed, there are many who are not ready to speak and perhaps never will be. I hope that you can take some heart from knowing that this very institution that failed you is at last acknowledging your hurt. Most importantly, we are sorry. On behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I am sorry. We are committing to change.”

In the house, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Greens Leader Adam Bandt then also spoke, and Steggall followed them, on behalf of those on the crossbench.

The speeches followed another that Morrison had given earlier on Tuesday, this time behind closed doors, which highlighted the political pressure he is under on this and other issues. A third speech would come later in the day, underlining it further.

“It’s time we focus – we’re in that final phase,” Morrison assured his Coalition colleagues when their weekly joint-parties meeting opened at 9.30am on Tuesday, in a reference to the impending election. “We’ve been there before. I know the path.”

The prime minister’s desperate tone would be explained two days later, when Channel Ten and The Australian’s Peter van Onselen revealed that the night before, Morrison had been rolled by his own cabinet. The prime minister had put his leadership on the line over his religious freedom bill, trying to persuade his own MPs not to cross the floor against it by proposing to put legislation for a national integrity commission before parliament as well.

But his cabinet colleagues overwhelmingly rejected the strategy.

In his opening address to the party-room the morning after – an address that ranged between reflection, defiance and pleading – Morrison delivered a rapid-fire list of about 40 things he said the government had achieved under his leadership. The government’s new plan to tackle violence against women was among them.

He told the private meeting of his colleagues he had never stopped “believing” they could win.

“And when you accept the badge of your party, it carries obligations. Everything that I’ve been able to do in my public life, I owe to the party that enabled me to represent my community to be here.”

He urged those gathered in the room and dialled in remotely to think about the things they were achieving together. “So let’s think about our future of this country,” Morrison is understood to have said. “What’s at stake? We are looking to the future right now and every person in this room has a contribution to make to ensure that we head in the right direction, or if this country goes down the path of the Labor Party and the Greens.”

As the anxiety in the parliamentary Liberal Party – and further afield – about his flagging popularity gets more acute, the prime minister made a direct appeal to them to stick with him. “I know what you expect of me, and I know what I expect of you,” he told them. “I’m going to lead and I’m asking you once again to follow me to an election victory this year.”

After he finished his address and before they went on to discuss religious discrimination and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people, the prime minister asked if anyone had any contributions to make on general business. Nobody spoke.

After what is being described as a brief, awkward silence, the meeting moved on to thrash out a range of views on the contentious religious discrimination bill, which the government would eventually shelve after Labor and the crossbench forced amendments.

The meeting ran so long it had to be suspended for question time at 2pm. When it resumed later, Morrison’s tone had changed.

“If we fail to agree on this, the mountain will be made higher,” he is understood to have warned them. “You will experience opposition – not a place you want to be. I appeal to you to come together.”

Tying his own leadership to the fate of the bill, Morrison issued an explicit warning: “If you take my legs out, it won’t just be me. You will suffer…”

The following day, both Higgins and former Australian of the Year and child sexual abuse victim-survivor advocate Grace Tame added to the pressure on Morrison, criticising his handling of issues around abuse.

In a joint address to the National Press Club, Higgins and Tame levelled separate allegations.

Higgins defended her decision to make public a text message written in March last year by then backbench Nationals MP and now Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, to an unnamed third party, in which he labelled Morrison “a hypocrite and a liar”.

“I have never trusted him,” Joyce wrote, “and I dislike how he earnestly rearranges the truth to a lie.” He said he and Morrison “don’t get along” and had asked the recipient to pass his views on to Higgins. The person forwarded the message, for which Joyce has now apologised.

After her address, Higgins was asked why she had decided to release the message a year after it was written and in the wake of another leak of text messages critical of Morrison and written by then New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian and an unnamed federal cabinet minister.

Higgins said Joyce’s comments were related to what the prime minister knew about her alleged rape. “What he was implying was he didn’t believe that the prime minister didn’t know,” Higgins said. “It’s flabbergasting to me that that’s tolerated and that’s been made okay. And that’s somehow been sidestepped in all of this.”

Higgins also said she didn’t want sympathy from Morrison as a father, she wanted him to use his authority as prime minister to drive change.

Grace Tame asked that governments take abuse more seriously, fund preventive education and change the language in legislation to remove reference to a sexual “relationship” with a child when it was abuse.

Tame told the Press Club audience that she had received a phone call on August 17 last year from a person she declined to name, who she said worked for a government-funded organisation and asked her to refrain from negative commentary about Morrison at the 2022 Australian of the Year awards ceremony.

“ ‘You’re an influential person – he’ll have a fear,’ they said,” Tame told the audience. “ ‘A fear? What kind of fear?’ I asked myself. ‘A fear for our nation’s most vulnerable? A fear for the future of our planet?’ And then I heard the words: ‘You know, with an election coming soon.’ ”

Morrison denied any knowledge of such a call and the government initiated an investigation. The National Australia Day Council also issued a statement denying any involvement.

“I have not and would not authorise any such actions and at all times have sought to treat Ms Tame with dignity and respect,” Morrison told parliament on Thursday. “Ms Tame should always be free to speak her mind and conduct herself as she chooses.”

Tame sparked controversy for throwing the prime minister a look of disdain while being photographed with Morrison and his wife, Jenny, on arrival at a reception at The Lodge ahead of this year’s awards ceremony. While the outgoing Australian of the Year smiled at Jenny Morrison, she pointedly glowered at the prime minister. Morrison has since declined to make any public criticism of Tame or her actions and has defended her right to act as she wished.

“I acted with integrity,” Tame told the Press Club when asked about her side-eye. She declined to confirm specifically that the August phone call had prompted her actions at The Lodge.

In parliament, Morrison urged her to reveal if not the name of the individual, then at least the name of the agency to which she was referring. Without that, the government has determined the matter cannot be pursued.

“I consider the actions and the statements of the individual absolutely unacceptable,” the prime minister said. He said the person should apologise. Women’s Safety Minister Anne Ruston labelled the phone call “absolutely inappropriate”.

Later, Tame tweeted criticism of the proposed investigation. She said it was a product of “the very same embedded structural silencing culture that drove the call in the first place”.

As the senate began debating legislation introduced to allow the rest of the measures proposed by Kate Jenkins to be implemented, Greens senator Larissa Waters spoke on behalf of another victim-survivor, Dhanya Mani, who accused politicians and the media of only acknowledging those advocates who were white and attractive and ignoring people of colour – especially women.

Waters read into Hansard a statement from Mani about Morrison’s apology. “He spoke about the power of apologies to create reform and change,” it said. “That statement is true. It just does not apply to his offensive and whitewashed excuse for an apology.”

Mani’s statement accused Morrison of “failing to genuinely consult or consider” survivors in drafting the wording of his apology.

The late decision to speak at all may go some way to explaining why.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Exclusive: PM planned not to deliver abuse apology".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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