Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Notes on a Coalition scandal

When bad news is dominating the headlines, the best solution for a prime minister is to eclipse it with good news. How fortunate then for Scott Morrison that he was able to finally announce on Tuesday that the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine had been approved for rollout in Australia.

Never mind that Australia hasn’t exactly led the world in providing vaccination for its citizens, or the lingering questions over who should get vaccinated first and why more was not on hand – the announcement provided the PM with real political inoculation against the other huge story of the day.

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins had ended two years of suffering in silence to make public allegations she was raped by a colleague and that her story was covered up and disregarded by her superiors. She is just the latest young woman employed in a ministerial office at Parliament House to speak out about the culture of sexism and misogyny.

So many of the elements of Higgins’ story had the recurring features of a government that “humbly” promises accountability and transparency only to do its best to hide from view its failures and disregard for earlier conventions of behaviour.

The case is compelling and mounting. Scandals are nothing new in Australian politics but as Nick Feik in The Monthly put it, “the way they have piled up in the recent years of Coalition government points to a critical shift in our governance”. Feik chronicles the way in which ministers brazen out conflicts of interest, or are caught doing things that in past years would have seen them resign. He cites Stuart Robert and Angus Taylor. We are certainly a long way from the days when Hawke government minister Mick Young resigned after failing to declare a stuffed Paddington Bear toy to Customs.

In the firing line this time is the prime minister, over what he knew and when he knew it, and the now Defence minister, Linda Reynolds, for missing the cues about how traumatised her staffer Higgins was following an alleged sexual assault by a more senior member of Reynolds’ office. Higgins told news.com.au it was the sight of Morrison standing beside Australian of the Year Grace Tame, a survivor of sexual assault, that pushed her to go public.

Higgins reflected on how Morrison was standing next to a woman who campaigned for the Let Her Speak movement and yet “in my mind his government was complicit in silencing me”.

Her sense of desertion by the Liberal Party had been building in the two years since the alleged late-night assault in Reynolds’ office. In a dossier circulating in the press gallery, Higgins has screenshots of texts she shared with a friend of her reaction to other Liberal staffers “demonising” two young women who had spoken to The Sydney Morning Herald of their sexual harassment experiences, six months after Higgins’ own assault. “I just know how they feel and haven’t had anyone do any follow up from the party since my incident,” she wrote in the text, “so I get where they are coming from.”

On Monday this week, Morrison claimed in parliament the government was following the “best practice principle of empowering Ms Higgins” and that the offer of “support and assistance continues”. The prime minister said the government was respecting her privacy and agency in the matter. That was the briefing from his office and the view Reynolds had of her own behaviour in the matter.

But during an extensive interview Higgins gave that night to Channel Ten’s The Project, a very different and harrowing perspective emerged. She said Reynolds and her staff were engaged in a “tick box” effort and that she later realised their advice – that she could take the matter to the police – would come at the cost of her career prospects, especially with a federal election looming. The “team player” culture was heavily impressed on staffers who, like Higgins, were members of the Liberal Party, or certainly supporters of it.

Later that night, after watching the Higgins interview, a “shattered” Morrison spoke with his wife. He told reporters the next morning that Jenny Morrison said to him, “You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” Morrison continued, “Jenny has a way of clarifying things, always has.”

It’s not the first time Morrison has drawn on “Jen and the girls” to address a perceived empathy deficit. An unimpressed Tegan George from Channel Ten asked, “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? And what happens if men don’t have a wife and children? Do they reach the same compassionate conclusion?” A flummoxed prime minister replied that “being a husband and a father is central to me … so I just can’t follow the question you are putting”.

Morrison announced he was asking two women – senior public servant Stephanie Foster and Liberal MP Celia Hammond, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Notre Dame – to work on ways of improving standards and procedures. In 2013, according to a report in The Australian, Hammond railed against sex before marriage, contraception, feminism and sexual freedoms. Broadcaster and journalist Julia Baird described Hammond as “a staunch anti-feminist”. The Labor opposition and the independents on the crossbench in the house of representatives are calling for an independent review and a new agency to handle complaints free from departmental or ministerial oversight.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who on the advice of his wife, Lucy, introduced the so-called “bonk ban” on ministers and their staffers, doubts the wisdom of putting Hammond in this role. He told the ABC that while he doesn’t doubt her capabilities, being asked to review the behaviour of her own colleagues puts her “in a very invidious position”. He said there should be “an absolutely rigorous, independent review”.

Late Wednesday, Morrison capitulated to the pressure and announced he would set up a third review at “arm’s length from the government”.

Turnbull has doubts these reviews do much good anyway. Two earlier promised Morrison probes – one launched after two female Liberal MPs alleged bullying by their colleagues during the coup that toppled Turnbull, and the other after Four Corners reported on allegations about the behaviour towards women by ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter – have disappeared without trace.

Turnbull agrees with the Labor Party in that he finds it “incredible” Morrison’s office was not made aware of Higgins’ rape allegation as soon as the complaint was made. Morrison said he didn’t find out until Monday morning this week, and that his office did not hear of it until two days earlier.

Labor’s Penny Wong says the credibility of these denials is undermined by the fact that the chief of staff in Reynolds’ office who dealt with Higgins was originally from Morrison’s team, and has since returned to the prime minister’s office.

In parliament, Morrison said Turnbull was entitled to his view but drew Labor derision when he suggested his now staffer was “bound by what happened in that [Reynolds’] office”. It’s as though his ministers and their staff are not accountable to him. Indeed, on Tuesday, the prime minister told reporters he’d made it very clear to Minister Reynolds he shouldn’t have been left in the dark. Journalist Lisa Wilkinson, who interviewed Higgins for The Project, says her producers contacted the prime minister’s office the week before the program went to air.

Morrison denies he has a “don’t ask don’t tell policy”, but this is undermined by his claim that his senior staff didn’t think he needed to be informed of an alleged criminal assault just 50 metres from his office.

Calling the prime minister out as a liar is increasingly hard to resist. While incompetence is another explanation, more likely is that it is better to dissemble and obfuscate because the voters won’t notice or won’t care. Indeed, the latest Essential Poll had the prime minister’s approval rating rising to 65 per cent – a gain of four points. Labor is convinced this is due to the cover being provided by the pandemic. But Anthony Albanese’s new government accountability spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, believes the avalanche of rorts, malfeasance and impropriety, as documented by Monthly editor Nick Feik in his essay, are becoming too hard for people to ignore.

Keneally’s and Labor’s task is to convert the 80 per cent of Australians who support a strong corruption watchdog into votes for the party that has signed up to one. Until now, this has been a faint hope, although Keneally says linking corruption to extravagance and a waste of taxpayers’ money resonates.

Labor spent much of the week attacking Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s use of the Safer Communities Fund to pork barrel in the run-up to the 2018 byelection in Braddon. The minister outlayed $36,000 to fly to Tasmania, where he spent barely a day campaigning and gave a $194,000 grant, in defiance of departmental guidelines – which were still being developed – and before applications were called for.

Morrison dismissed Labor’s attack, saying Dutton had acted according to the rules and that “settles the issue”. It would, if you think self-serving rules that allow ministers to allocate millions of dollars completely at their discretion are acceptable.

Few are holding their breath for the promised national integrity commission to materialise anytime soon. Submissions have closed on Christian Porter’s draft legislation, which proposes a model that would operate in secret and ring fence ministers and senior public servants from any real scrutiny. Perhaps it provides a clue as to what Morrison would accept from any new parliamentary standards agency.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Office of waits and half measures".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.