Monday, February 22, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Getting away with it
It’s clear someone has lied. So who’s going to take the fall?

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking in Question Time today.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking in Question Time today. Image via ABC News

The holes in the government’s timeline surrounding former staffer Brittany Higgins’s rape allegations keep getting bigger, while the extent of the alleged rapist’s reported crimes grows more horrifying. Two more women came forward anonymously today, joining another former Liberal staffer who told The Weekend Australian she was sexually assaulted by him as well. One, a young Coalition volunteer, alleges she was plied with drinks and assaulted during the 2016 election campaign, while the other, who worked at parliament, says he reached under a table and stroked her thigh at Canberra’s Public Bar in 2017. Though none of these women told leadership figures, as Higgins did, it’s a terrible look for the Liberal Party nonetheless. It appears the former “rising star” is an alleged serial offender who thought he could assault young women in the party and get away with it. And why wouldn’t he? He almost did.

His day of reckoning has hopefully come, with police reopening their investigation into Higgins’s alleged rape in Parliament House. But has the government’s? Journalists and the Opposition certainly hope so: reporters are continuing to dig into what looks more and more like a cover-up, while Labor intends to focus its energies this week on “the many holes and discrepancies in the government’s account”. And there are many.

Things have grown murkier for the government’s timelines today – especially for Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. As journalist Samantha Maiden revealed on the weekend (and again in this morning’s update), Reynolds’s then chief of staff, Fiona Brown, received advice from the Department of Finance over a potential sexual assault on March 29, 2019 – three days before the controversial April 1 meeting, which was held in the ministerial office where Higgins was reportedly raped. Reynolds, who quickly apologised for the inappropriate meeting location last week, has continued to maintain she didn’t know about the assault at that point, saying she wouldn’t have called the meeting in her office if she had. But the advice, sought before the meeting, notes that Reynolds and Brown had already urged Higgins to take her complaint to the police. As Maiden told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday, “Going into parliament and suggesting that she had no idea makes no sense.”

File this one alongside the other things that don’t add up: the fact that Brown worked in the PMO before and after the incident but for some reason didn’t tell the prime minister about a workplace rape allegation she was handling; screenshotted text messages to Higgins about an adviser in PMO being “mortified” by the allegations; the “checking in” call Higgins received from Morrison’s principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, around the time of the November 2020 Four Corners episode about the harassment of women in parliament; the fact that Morrison’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, helped terminate the employment of the staffer who reportedly assaulted Higgins; and the curious voicemail that Senator Michaelia Cash left for Higgins in October 2019, around the time of a media inquiry into the incident.

In Question Time today, Morrison repeated his claims that he first became aware of the sexual assault on February 15, and his staff on February 12.

The whole thing smells of a cover-up, then a cover-up of a cover-up. For now, the government is continuing to rely on vague allusions that all these Liberal insiders who knew only thought it was a “security breach”, or they suspected something untoward had happened but were not aware of the alleged rape, or they did know but wanted to protect Higgins’s “privacy”. Morrison has asked for an investigation into who in his office knew what, and when, though as Labor’s Penny Wong noted today, he’s asked Phil Gaetjens – the same Phil Gaetjens who conducted the “investigation” into the sports rorts scandal. (Morrison and Simon Birmingham each refused to guarantee the release of Gaetjens’ report in the House of Reps and the Senate today.)

Morrison needn’t have asked Gaetjens at all. The media, led by Maiden, is doing the job for him, slowly untangling the threads of this timeline. Why did the government come out with lies and obfuscations, making the whole thing worse for itself, when it was obvious that journalists would go digging? Why lie when it’s all going to come out in the wash?

As Wong noted in a powerful speech in the Senate today, the government’s insistence that the prime minister did not know shows that the Coalition knows “this is the test”. Morrison’s claimed ignorance, and the argument that he acted as soon as he heard anything, has become the most essential thing here, even if it makes his staff and Reynolds look bad. But it’s becoming clearer that somebody is lying. So who’s going to take the fall for this one?

“No one” is the answer the government must be hoping for. Perhaps, like the alleged perpetrator, they think they’re going to get away with it. And why wouldn’t they? They almost always do.

“We are determined to ensure the election of a political representative who reflects our values – not the fringe. Who respects and engages with his constituents – not blocks and belittles them. And who works tirelessly in our interests – not his own.”

Alli Grimison, convener of community group Hughes Deserves Better, says people are “fed up” with Liberal MP Craig Kelly, as new polling shows 71.4 per cent of the electorate believe his social media posts are “irresponsible” or “very irresponsible”.

“Australia is fortunate to have a vibrant, diverse and contentious media sector.”

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has written to the parliamentary committee on petitions, advising it that the federal government recommends against a royal commission into media diversity.

Robo-debt: the origin of the supervillain
Two long-forgotten High Court cases warned the government that robo-debt might be illegal. Rick Morton on what they knew – and when they knew it.

The amount by which the Coalition may have overstated the cost of Labor’s original fibre-to-the-premises NBN model, with 2013 figures showing large savings intentionally kept under wraps until now.

“A Labor-aligned think tank with a history of forecasting the party’s policy is urging all workers to be given paid holidays and sick leave even if they are independent contractors or casuals.”

The McKell Institute has used a new report to argue for universal paid sick leave – an idea Labor distanced itself from earlier this month.

The list

“This show of work from Bathurst and Melville islands, about 60 kilometres north of Darwin, segues back and forth from historical art forms that merged seamlessly with the traditional singing and dancing of the region, to contemporary media and imagery that fuse the worldview and experience of the artists. Mourning posts, bark painting, textile printing, canvas, paper, ceramics, screen-prints, woodblocks, etchings: Tiwi artists have actively encouraged each other to follow their own path, both in their ceremonial creativity and in their artworks made for sale, and to connect with and explore every medium and style they have met with over the years.”

“Even great parties have awkward beginnings: three people trying to be a crowd (four if you count the blancmange) in an otherwise empty room, and a host trying to quell the terror that no one will arrive. When more guests do arrive, they’re always in impossible combinations: your Aunt Wendy from out of town, the crack-smoking anarchist from next door, and the overseas basketball player whom you met on the tram that morning and promised a good time.”

“Since the day I told my story, I have been working tirelessly because I never wanted someone like Brittany to go through what she is experiencing now – publicly sharing her trauma with the country to persuade our parliamentarians that women deserve to be safe in the buildings where our country’s laws are made and the social fabric of our society is shaped.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

Composite image of NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (images via ABC News)

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Fear and showboating

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The little guys

A vocal minority that has for so long controlled the climate debate is now painting itself as marginalised

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A tale of two commissions

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From the front page

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Border farce

So much for the national plan

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

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The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions