The Politics    Monday, March 15, 2021

Silent no more

By Rachel Withers

Image of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins speaking at the Canberra March 4 Justice rally today. Image via ABC News

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins speaking at the Canberra March 4 Justice rally today. Image via ABC News

The attorney-general sues for silence on the same day women break theirs.

Today, women across the country found a united voice, marching to end discrimination, harassment and assault. Brittany Higgins, the woman who kicked off the movement by breaking her silence over her alleged rape in Parliament House, addressed the crowd outside that very building, saying she did so to protect other women. “Staying silent,” she said “would have made me complicit.” Speaking at a rally in Hobart, Australian of the Year Grace Tame – who fought archaic laws preventing victims from speaking out – said that “evil thrives in silence”, and that the solution was about “making noise”. See What You Made Me Do author and investigative journalist Jess Hill told the Sydney crowd that “the time for silence is over”. Less than two hours before these women spoke, the man whose alleged actions had galvanised the crowds, Attorney-General Christian Porter, announced he would be launching defamation proceedings against journalist Louise Milligan and the ABC, in an attempt to quell the rumours swirling around him.

Porter, who has strenuously denied allegations that he raped a young woman in 1988, is suing the ABC over Four Corners’ February 26 online story, which revealed that a historical rape allegation had been made against an anonymous cabinet minister. Though Porter was not named in the story, his high-profile defamation lawyers allege it made him “easily identifiable” as the accused perpetrator, pointing to the November 2020 Four Corners story that portrayed him as “a sexist and misogynist” and the fact that his name began trending on social media soon after. Those lawyers, Bret Walker SC (who represented Cardinal George Pell when he was acquitted of child sex abuse) and Sue Chrysanthou SC and Rebekah Giles (who recently represented Brittany Higgins in defamation proceedings against her former boss), are accusing the public broadcaster of “trial by media” and Milligan of acting with “malice” in a campaign to harm Porter’s reputation.

The lawsuit, many suspect, is aimed at silencing calls for a public inquiry into the allegations against Porter, with the government now able to point to ongoing defamation proceedings when asked about an inquiry (apparently these proceedings won’t contravene the all-important “rule of law”, despite the fact the police have closed their investigation). It will also create a shield against answering questions about Porter in Question Time, with the government able to argue that it doesn’t want to influence legal proceedings.

But it’s also no doubt aimed at silencing the media, as plaintiff-friendly defamation cases often do in Australia. As Saturday Paper editor Maddison Connaughton wrote in a recent editorial, our “notoriously restrictive defamation laws” have a “chilling effect” on allegations of sexual assault. The attorney-general himself, she notes, used a 2019 National Press Club address to say that laws “no longer strike the perfect balance between public interest journalism and protecting individuals from harm”. But Porter, who as the Commonwealth’s first law officer is responsible for defamation law reform, is now using the unbalanced law to his own advantage (assistant minister to the attorney-general Amanda Stoker told Guardian Australia that the government is in the process of determining how to manage “potential conflict of interest” here).

It’s not yet clear whether Milligan and the ABC intend to rely on the defence of truth, attempting to prove the claims, or if they will argue that the article in question does not convey the imputations of guilt or suspicion being alleged, as media outlets often do. It’s also not clear if the ABC can afford to fight this, following successive budget cuts, with Porter no doubt willing to settle for a retraction and silence if it means saving his reputation and career. Porter’s lawyers argue in a statement that the commencement of proceedings should put an end to the “trial by media”. But in response, they’ve launched a trial of the media, one aimed at hushing up the issue for good.

The past few weeks have led to today’s collective breaking of silence, with Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins rightly headlining the March 4 Justice rallies, but there is one woman at the centre of all this who was never fully able to break hers. The woman, who had slowly begun to tell friends, ex-partners and even the police that she alleged she was raped by the attorney-general when they were teenagers, was only just finding her voice when she lost her battle with mental illness, at just 49. On the weekend, journalists – one a friend of the accused – launched a major attack in the “trial by media” against her, publishing her diaries and making cruel implications about her sanity, while today, the journalist who had attempted to speak for her has been sued by the first law officer of the nation. After today’s rallies, the prime minister stood up in parliament and implied that the women who marched should be grateful to live in a “vibrant liberal democracy”, with protesters in nearby Myanmar “being met with bullets”. Women’s voices may not have not been met with bullets here, but there is no doubt they are seen as a threat – one that has been met with the full force of the law.

“If you start giving early access to first-home buyers, then it’s really destructive because in the first instance what we’re doing is providing the wherewithal for people to further bid up prices, but you’re also undermining the wealth generating capacity of superannuation.”

AustralianSuper chair Don Russell criticises Liberal MP Tim Wilson’s “Home first, super second” proposal.

“This is a vibrant liberal democracy. Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets – but not here in this country.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison expects March 4 Justice protesters will be grateful they weren’t shot at.

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The primary vote of both Labor and the Coalition in the latest Newspoll – Labor’s best result since the election. Labor has hit the lead in the two-party preferred vote, sitting at 52–48.

“Warringah MP Zali Steggall has introduced a bill to federal parliament on Monday that would change national sexual harassment laws to ensure it covers all workplaces.”

Crossbench MPs are pushing for amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, ensuring that members of parliament, judges and other statutory appointees are both protected from and liable for sexual harassment in their workplaces. Steggall said she wrote to the government urging it to introduce the legislation, to no avail.

The list

“Part of Riebl’s gift was that she could play most things put in front of her. At eight she was performing Beethoven sonatas. She was also jotting down compositions in the back of her sonatas book. An early work for piano, violin and cello was performed and praised, but she composed in secret after that: she was too busy practising and doing eisteddfods. Also, ‘this music needed a long time to be ready,’ she says. When her mother took her as a child to a tailor for a concert gown – the standard was pastel satin with short sleeves – Riebl requested black crushed velvet, long sleeves and, tellingly, a cape. ‘I was very good at flying,’ she says of her playing back then, ‘the sinking came later.’”

“Like a salmon swimming upstream, I’ve spent every February in Berlin for the past 29 years – including the six years I lived in the city. For a long time the Berlin Film Festival was like that: something you pretty much had to attend, if you were interested in that kind of thing. But the growing hegemony of the Cannes Film Festival, coupled with some less-than-stellar leadership on Potsdamer Strasse, has seen the festival’s reputation decline badly over the past decade. The big films proved harder to come by. International buyers started skipping it. Members of the press stayed home. So it’s bitterly ironic that this year, as a global pandemic necessitated the shift to an online-only event, and everyone remained at home, the Berlinale should present its strongest line-up in a decade.”

“It’s about privilege and entitlement and the ‘club’ of people like those he went to school with and debated against, who went on to careers in the law, judiciary, public service, business, media and, particularly, politics. The composition of the Morrison government illustrates the point: 16 of 22 members of the cabinet are men. Save for one of these, all are white. The Saturday Paper has established the educational backgrounds of 15 of them. Eleven went to non-government schools, mostly elite private ones. Seven of them, including Morrison himself, attended boys-only institutions.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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