The Politics    Friday, September 17, 2021

The standard you walk past

By Rachel Withers

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via Facebook) and Industry Minister Christian Porter (image via Sky News).

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via Facebook) and Industry Minister Christian Porter (image via Sky News).

Ministerial standards breach or no, there is something deeply wrong with the government’s principles

Prime Minister Scott Morrison might have hoped that yesterday’s AUKUS news might have prevented him from being asked awkward questions about Industry Minister Christian Porter and the “investigation” by the PM’s office into whether Porter’s mysterious donation towards his legal fees breached ministerial standards. Unfortunately for Morrison, journalists can focus on more than one thing at a time. After yesterday refusing to say whether Porter would remain on the front bench, or whether he had breached the standards, the PM was today asked whether we could infer from the investigation that Porter would have to go. “These are complicated, these are not ordinary arrangements,” he told ABC’s AM, adding that he wouldn’t speculate on whether paying back the money would make it all okay. The growing political consensus following the latest scandal is that Porter will have to relinquish his portfolio sooner or later; that he will likely slip quietly to the backbench, and then out of politics at the next election (though as Crikey’s Bernard Keane points out, the outcome of the latest Gaetjens inquiry will likely have more to do with electoral considerations in the seat of Pearce than ministerial standards). There is little doubt that Porter breached the standards – in particular section 2.21, which says ministers “must not seek or encourage any form of gift in their personal capacity” – and Morrison has been forced to act, lest he be accused of ignoring the code of conduct. But the fact that it took until now for Porter to face any kind of inquiry shows there is something deeply wrong with the government’s moral standards.

It’s faintly ridiculous to think that a donation towards the legal fees incurred in his defamation case against the ABC might be the thing that brings the former attorney-general down, considering what he stands accused of, and with no proper inquiry having been undertaken to clear the air. If (or when) Porter is stood down from the front bench, the public record will show that this was not because he was accused of a historical rape, but over a mysterious donation. It will be much like the loss of his attorney-general portfolio in the March reshuffle, which was not relinquished because of the allegations he faced, as he was quick to point out, but because of the defamation proceedings he had launched.

From the moment the disturbing Four Corners allegations of rape were aired, it was clear to many that the role of the then anonymous minister had become untenable. But in the eyes of the scandal-prone Morrison government, you have to do something openly corrupt before your position becomes so. Morrison has finally called an inquiry into Porter’s actions (one that, as the satirical site The Shovel points out, is more an inquiry into whether there are ministerial standards in the government at all). But it’s not the inquiry that we have sorely needed for more than six months now. It’s an insult to women everywhere that this donation was considered more worthy of inquiry by the government than the horrifying letter that kicked this whole thing off: a woman’s tragic story that never prompted any real curiosity from Morrison or his team.

When it came to the Porter allegations, the Morrison government had an opportunity to show leadership, to demonstrate that it was going to take the mistreatment of women seriously, that women would be listened to and their allegations considered. It could have set a high standard for its ministers, for the lengths it would go to ensure they were fit for office, and it could have encouraged a higher standard for the entire nation. Instead it set the bar at a new low, brushing aside a dead woman’s harrowing, highly corroborated story because of the “rule of law”, and because it didn’t suit the government to hear it – and because it could. As former Australian of the Year Lieutenant General David Morrison said in his famous anti-misogyny speech (later referenced by Morrison himself), “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. Even if Porter does finally resign over this politically disastrous breach of the ministerial standards, this will forever remain the standard the Coalition walked past.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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Today’s AUSMIN statement contains several references to climate change, with US secretaries Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin joining Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton in calling for “ambitious” 2030 targets.

“This problem is much closer to us than most think. We ought to be prepared today.”

Defence Minister Peter Dutton plays up the prospect of war with China, telling the US Senate Armed Services Committee we ought to be prepared. Good thing those nuclear submarines will be ready… some time in the late 2030s.

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The list

“This list is intended as something of a cultural artefact and a tribute to arguably Australia’s greatest songwriter. I’ve never met the guy, though not for want of trying: I even bullied my way into an invitation to a 2013 election night party at his St Kilda house in the hope that Tony Abbott’s election as prime minister might be heralded by an intimate rendition of ‘Careless’, ‘Dumb Things’ or perhaps ‘Feelings of Grief’. Alas, he wasn’t home. It was around that time that I began this project, which has meant looking in all kinds of obscure places for Paul Kelly songwriting credits. It hasn’t been a chore.”

“There have always been complaints about Australian movies being too influenced by Hollywood. If only that were so. Hollywood epitomises illusion and dreams. Our films are much closer to the English model, in which character drives story, and social realism and naturalism are equated with authenticity. Our literary history is also based on naturalism, from Henry Lawson to Tim Winton. Our most popular TV shows are naturalist dramas about ordinary people, like SeaChange and Packed to the Rafters. We are suspicious of ornate language, wit and the visually extravagant. Our humour is daggy and safe.”

“Not only do they have to find water and food, evade predators, build shelter and maintain fire and their sanity in below zero conditions, they have to do all that while filming themselves and speaking to camera. The edit is so seamless that the effect remains one of complete authenticity. Despite the majesty and unpredictability of their vast surrounds, the true ground of adventure for the viewer lies in the sense of being welcomed into interior terrain. In this sense, Alone makes other reality television look like pantomime.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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