Paul Bongiorno
Trump-style politics on show in parliament

So much for respect and reconciliation in the national capital. As parliament returned for the final two weeks before the long winter break, it was more bare-knuckle combat with no one wanting to take prisoners.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney captured much of the zeitgeist in a speech on Tuesday night. She was applying it to the “No” campaign, as the senate began debating the referendum-enabling legislation, but it could just as well apply to the politics being played over the latest flare-up in the Brittany Higgins rape allegation saga.

Burney said she feared American-style Trump politics were being imported into Australia. “At its heart, is a post-truth approach to politics,” she said. “And its weapon of choice is misinformation.”

In both issues that dominated the week no one can deny the stakes are very high. On the one hand we have more evidence the criminal justice system is incapable of resolving centuries-old discrimination against women in sexual assault cases, especially when there is an intersection with high-powered politics.

On the other hand we have at stake the potential unravelling of the incremental gains made over the past half-century in reconciling with First Nations people. Can anyone imagine this nation would be enhanced if the referendum finally giving Indigenous Australians the recognition long denied them, on terms they have requested, goes down?

The shadow attorney-general, Michaelia Cash, has grabbed an American political term to attack Labor over how it approached the Higgins rape allegations before the last election. She says Labor “weaponised” the claims to bring down the Morrison government. This is a fairly widely held view on the Coalition benches to this day. Ignored is the ham-fisted way Scott Morrison dealt with the issues that saw women voters desert his government in droves.

No mind is being paid to that as Cash and her colleagues have seized on leaked text messages between Brittany Higgins and her partner, David Sharaz, as proof Labor’s Katy Gallagher helped the pair with the rape allegation before Higgins went public. Once the former Liberal staffer did, Gallagher pursued the issue inside and outside the parliament.

The irony seems lost on the Liberals that they too are wielding the sexual assault claims as a weapon, this time against Gallagher. Cash and Peter Dutton accuse her of misleading the senate when she told a 2021 estimates hearing that she “had no knowledge” of the alleged assault – only to admit at the weekend that she learnt something of it four days before Higgins appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project.

As soon as the senate sat on Tuesday, Gallagher made a statement explaining her denial. Her original comments related to then Defence minister Linda Reynolds telling the estimates committee she knew “where this started” and claimed a Labor senator had told her what Gallagher and Penny Wong, then leader of the opposition in the senate, “were intending to do with the story in my office two weeks before”.

Gallagher quoted a statement Reynolds made to the senate after the altercation was sorted out when they met immediately after the clash. Reynolds said senators Wong and Gallagher assured her “they were not involved in that matter becoming public and I accept this assurance”.

Gallagher said this was the context of the denial and she had not misled the senate. Importantly, Gallagher was not a minister but in opposition at the time. She still needed to be honest in the performance of her parliamentary duties, but misleading parliament is a particularly egregious breach if a minister is caught out because it undermines the confidence Australians can have in their government’s integrity and competence.

Just ask Scott Morrison what happens when this confidence is lost. He was forced to admit in parliament this week he may have misled it in regard to how his office responded to the Higgins allegations after one of his staff, Fiona Brown, called him out last weekend. Gallagher is one of the government’s best performers, which would make her a prize scalp for the struggling Dutton opposition.

This goes a long way to explaining why concerns over breaching Brittany Higgins’s privacy have taken a back seat in a shabby political attack. Seizing on court material obtained under subpoena for the rape trial
is a shocking breach of ethics and potentially a contempt of court.

It is particularly shameless given Gallagher’s involvement was two years after Morrison, Cash, Reynolds and their offices treated Higgins as a political problem that needed to be managed on the cusp of the 2019 election.

In a phone conversation with Cash after the alleged incident, Higgins said she was raising the matter in the hope other women staffers would not suffer similar fates. Her speaking out two years later was motivated as much by frustration that nothing was done as it was by anger at her treatment. Labor’s pursuit of the issue led to sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’s inquiry into whether Parliament House was an unsafe workplace for women. Her findings were stunning. Her 28 recommendations are finally being implemented with bipartisan support, having been sat on by the Coalition.

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg is aghast at the way this latest chapter in the Higgins saga is playing out publicly. Speaking to RN Breakfast he said watching it unfold in the senate is “very ugly, very ugly”. He asked an important question: “Why would anyone come forward with allegations of assault if this is the result?”

Lawyers for the Ten Network suspect the texts and The Project transcripts were leaked to damage Higgins on the eve of Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against the network and its journalist, Lisa Wilkinson. Lehrmann’s barrister denied in court his client was the source. The TV network has referred the improper dissemination of these protected court documents to the Australian Federal Police. After what we have heard in the Sofronoff inquiry into the aborted rape trial, it is difficult to have much confidence in that course of action.

On the other issue of the week – the Voice – Linda Burney lamented about the direction of the referendum. She listed the misinformation that is taking its toll on support for the “Yes” campaign. This slide was picked up in the Resolve Political Monitor over the year, with “No” now leading 51-49 per cent. The figures show a tie between the six states. If that result were repeated on polling day, the Voice recognition referendum would go down. There was better news in the Essential poll, however, with support for “Yes” at 60 per cent. Even there, however, pollster Peter Lewis notices an uptick in “No” support.

Burney cited two Liberals, Andrew Hastie and Angus Taylor, “who were caught misleading Australians by deliberately misquoting former High Court judges Robert French and Kenneth Hayne during parliamentary debate”.

They were not alone. Michaelia Cash led off the senate debate repeating the same misrepresentation – that the two former judges believed a constitutional duty to consult with the Voice would make the business of government unworkable. The judges actually said the High Court was not in the business of allowing that in light of the restrictions on it in the actual referendum question. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus is calling on the Liberals to apologise. They haven’t.

Burney says the Australian people “are better than Trump politics from the ‘No’ campaign”. She may be right, but leading Voice architect Noel Pearson is worried enough to call for a fundamental shift in how the referendum is pushed. He says the campaign lacks a clear message. It must shift to explaining that the Voice is simply the mechanism by which to achieve recognition. “Give our people a Voice to the parliament, to the government, and you will give us the best means of recognition,” he told the Nine newspapers. “But the main point here is that we achieve recognition. That was the original motivation.”

Uluru dialog representative and “Yes” campaigner Marcus Stewart says the campaign begins when parliament finally passes the enabling legislation next week and things will look up when the debate moves out of the Canberra bubble. In truth, however, the campaign really began when Albanese proclaimed in his election night victory speech that he intended to deliver the Uluru statement fully this term.

The prime minister has assured cabinet the government would be doing more to run and promote the campaign in the months ahead of the referendum, which is expected in October. Albanese’s suggestion that the referendum is not about politicians but the Australian people is fine, but in the meantime Peter Dutton is dominating the campaign of misinformation about the reform.

Albanese needs to bring his high standing, confirmed in all the polls, to the issue. If he needs convincing, RedBridge Group political analyst Kos Samaras has found a correlation between rising interest rates and falling support for the Voice. He says the more economically stressed people become, the less inclined they are to absorb news. That will make the “Yes” campaign’s task harder.

Samaras said 600,000 borrowers were coming off lower fixed interest rates in the next three months and that would feed further into negative sentiment. And negative sentiment is the perfect ingredient for more of the Trump-like campaigning of which Linda Burney has already warned.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Voice of an angle".

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