Diary

Gadfly
Bursting the Canberra bubble

This is how it should have gone: The prime minister is alerted to Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape, and right away makes a statement about how he’s distraught over what she went through. He says he’ll make sure this never happens again and will do everything in his power to see she has access to the resources needed for justice to be served. Then a few days later, when allegations of a historical rape made against a cabinet minister come to light, the prime minister steps up and says he’s doing everything in his power to find out what’s alleged to have happened. The accused parliamentarian has been asked to step down until the police decide about an investigation. The prime minister demands an overhaul of the toxic culture of Canberra. “He’s clearly sincere in his efforts to shirtfront toxic misogyny and rape culture,” the public thinks, and we applaud him for his empathy and concern.

This is how it went instead: Scott Morrison couldn’t bring himself to care about Brittany Higgins until Jenny told him he should, a conversation that Jenny seemingly hadn’t had with him before, which makes you wonder how often he and Jenny actually talk. Then, when allegations of a historical rape are brought against a cabinet minister, Scott addressed the media only briefly while tossing the “Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety” report at them like Batman throwing a smoke bomb before disappearing. In that press conference, Scott admitted he was aware of the “rumours” of the alleged assault earlier this year, and so clearly had enough time to run them by Jenny but didn’t.

Scott also said he hadn’t read the documents outlining the allegations but had spoken to the accused cabinet minister who had “vigorously rejected” the claims. Apparently, vigorously rejecting any claims is all a person needs to do for the prime minister to believe their denial. Someone should have told Australia Post’s Christine Holgate.

The country is now in the somewhat curious position of being shocked and appalled by the lack of empathy shown by Morrison, a man who won an election despite previously being the immigration minister who blamed the death of an asylum seeker killed during a riot at Manus Island detention centre on the asylum seeker himself. At the time, Immigration Minister Morrison took security contractor G4S at their word when they vigorously denied any fault, which now sounds vaguely familiar.

Scotty’s busywork is never done

The prime minister’s apparent lack of interest in the detail of the allegations levelled by Brittany Higgins, and those made against his cabinet minister, raises the question: What exactly is the prime minister so busy with? His staff don’t seem to tell him about anything of importance, respecting with an almost religious conviction the “DO NOT DISTURB” sign hanging on his office door.

Clearly, Scott’s attention must be taken up by something so utterly time-consuming, if he can’t even afford the few minutes needed to read through a sexual assault allegation against a cabinet minister, or be informed of an alleged rape in the halls of parliament.

Is he working on a garam masala mix that will heal the rifts in multiculturalism? Is he at Bunnings, buying supplies for a chook pen so large it can double as a quarantine facility for returning Australians? Is he sewing – by hand – another Australian-flag mask, and full-flag bodysuit to match? Whatever Scott is so focused on, if you’re looking to do something you don’t want the prime minister to know about, now’s clearly the time to do it.

How good is plausible deniability?

Porter versus reporter

Speculation was rampant as to the identity of the cabinet minister accused of rape, in that everyone was speculating it was Attorney-General, First Law Officer of the Crown in right of the Commonwealth of Australia, Christian Porter. This speculation was confirmed when Porter stepped up to the microphone in Perth on Wednesday and identified himself.

Fighting back tears that men summon only when accused of rape, Porter strenuously denied the allegations, saying, “Nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened.” He did not answer questions from reporters about why his Wikipedia page was mysteriously edited in the lead-up to the press conference, removing any reference to his being in Sydney in 1988, when the alleged rape took place.

Porter also denied seeing any details of the allegations, which really makes you wonder whether some informational black hole has opened up inside Parliament House, given no one there ever seems familiar with anything.

In Perth, Porter told reporters, “If I stand down from my position as attorney-general because of an allegation about something that simply did not happen, then any person in Australia can lose their career, their job, their life’s work based on nothing more than an accusation that appears in print.” This signals a change in his personal philosophy from 2019, when he was happy to call refugees and asylum seekers being brought to Australia under Medevac “rapists or murderers”, in what can be described as less of a “whisper campaign” and more of a “yelling it out loud campaign”. Porter was adamant he will not step down from the attorney-general’s office, saying, “I hope this isn’t the new normal.” He doesn’t need to worry though, it’s clear the “old normal” is very much still in place.

Aged care factor zero

The final report of a two-and-a-half-year inquiry into aged care was released on Monday, containing 148 recommendations. Normally a report of this import would first be handed to the media, giving them time to go through its recommendations before a press conference is held.

Sometimes, as in the case of the banking royal commission report, reporters are herded into a lock-up, where they are handed embargoed copies of said report and left for a while to read it and knife each other over the last cup of coffee. This time allows them to prepare thought-out questions that can be duly ignored by the relevant minister, who makes clear the report’s recommendations won’t actually be implemented. Standard stuff.

But back in the halcyon days of the banking royal commission, there wasn’t a highly controversial allegation of historical rape being levelled against a cabinet minister, who had also been the focus of a Four Corners investigation the government tried to shut down. So, using the classic technique of distracting someone from the stabbing pain in their stomach by punching them in the face, the prime minister gave reporters half an hour to get to Kirribilli House to ask questions about the findings of the aged-care royal commission, a report none of them had read.

“Australians must be able to trust that their loved ones will be cared for appropriately and the community should have confidence in the system,” Morrison told the media, setting a higher standard for aged care than currently exists for women working in parliament.

He announced his government will spend $452 million to fix the aged-care system, which is less than the $500 million announced for the expansion of the Australian War Memorial. Although, in fairness, it is more than the $60 million he spent on a replica of Captain Cook’s HMB Endeavour, to re-enact a trip that never actually happened.

White supremacy degenerates

Completely coincidentally coinciding with the return of Sky News content to Facebook, Australia has seen two violent assaults by neo-Nazis. The first took place in Perth, where a white man used a flamethrower to attack a woman and her daughter. He was later subdued by bystanders who turned him over to the police. The bystanders identified him by the swastika he’d drawn on his forehead, although he’d accidentally drawn it in reverse because he was looking in a mirror. Police haven’t confiscated his shoelaces and belt while he’s in jail because they’re quite confident he can’t figure out how to tie a knot.

In Melbourne, another white man, a leader of a local neo-Nazi group, punched a security guard at Nine’s headquarters while hurling racial abuse. The entire attack was filmed by the attacker and his friend, broadcast on the internet, along with follow-up selfie videos, interviews with other neo-Nazis in the United States, and everything short of a TikTok of him singing a goddamn sea shanty, before the police were able to find and arrest the alleged attacker, Thomas Sewell, 48 hours later.

Sewell is a former Australian Defence Force soldier. He recently stormed a small town in regional Victoria, along with a whole group of narrow-chested white guys who claim to represent a new white supremacy but just look like the old white degeneracy.

Sewell has been charged by Victoria Police, which is famous for its strict stance against white supremacist behaviour, such as the time it expressed “extreme disappointment” at two officers who’d been posting alt-right memes on Facebook and photographed using white power gestures. Sewell is expected to defend himself by “vigorously rejecting” the charges, which should be good enough for everyone, including, no doubt, the prime minister. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Gadfly: Bursting the Canberra bubble".

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Sami Shah is a multi-award-winning comedian, writer and journalist.