Monday, March 22, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

A cover up of a cover up
Who knew that the “who knew what, and when” inquiry had been paused, and when?

Image of Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, speaking in a Senate estimates hearing today. Image via Sky News

Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, speaking in a Senate estimates hearing today. Image via Sky News

The Morrison government has for weeks used the lack of a police investigation into the rape allegations against Attorney-General Christian Porter as an excuse not to hold an independent inquiry or answer questions. But now the inverse reason is being used to justify the government’s actions in relation to the rape allegations made by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins: the existence of a police investigation is the excuse used to shut down inquiries and questions. Many are crying “cover up”, after it came to light in a Senate estimates hearing that the investigation into who in the PM’s office knew what and when about Higgins’ alleged rape was suspended on March 9. Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens stated that he had paused his investigation on the advice of the AFP, while AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw earlier told a different committee that he had raised concerns about overlap with the police investigation, but had not made any requests of Gaetjens to amend or pause his inquiry (Kershaw has since released a statement saying he “informed Mr Gaetjens on 9 March it was strongly advisable to hold off”, and that he supported the decision to put the internal inquiry on hold). Gaetjens revealed he had never spoken with Higgins, yet insisted he was acting to protect her, prompting outrage from senators in the room.

Earlier in the day, a hearing had to be put on hold after Senate President Scott Ryan (one of the few people confirmed to have known about the alleged rape at the time) refused to answer questions about the allegations, pointing to the ongoing police investigation, while Department of Parliamentary Services secretary Rob Stefanic said he had to be “very cautious about answering any detail”, though admitted that police had not advised him not to answer.

Labor and Greens senators were exasperated by the stonewalling in Senate estimates, but plenty of outrage was reserved for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who somehow failed to mention that Gaetjens’ inquiry had been suspended – despite being repeatedly asked about it in parliament over the past week (Gaetjens confirmed that he had told the prime minister of the pause directly on March 9). As recently as last Thursday, Morrison told the House of Representatives that he could not speak to who knew what and when, with inquiries into the matter being made by the secretary “at arm’s length from me”. When asked why the Gaetjens report was taking so long, he repeated that, saying he had “no involvement in that process, and nor should I”.

Today’s Question Time was, unsurprisingly, dominated by the revelations, with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese demanding to know why the prime minister had misled the parliament on the status of the Gaetjens inquiry. Morrison insisted he did “no such thing”, going further in challenging Albanese to pursue other avenues if he believed this to be the case (Albanese moved to suspend standing orders to do just that, and was immediately shut down by Acting Leader of the House Peter Dutton). Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus asked the prime minister why he had misled the House on the Porter briefing, following evidence from the AFP commissioner that he had not provided the PM with details, to which Morrison replied that he could “only recall faithfully to the House what occurred”, insisting he had done so. Labor MP Catherine King continued her persistent questioning over whether the PM’s staff had backgrounded against Higgins’ loved ones, following further estimates revelations that the department of PMC received a media enquiry about Higgins’ partner on February 17 – questions Morrison once again deflected.

While dodging multiple questions regarding why he misled the parliament over the Gaetjens inquiry, Morrison rebuked Albanese for making this a “personal attack”. This issue certainly did become more personal for the prime minister today. It’s clear from last week’s on-the-record answers – which many were quick to pull up – that he intentionally failed to mention that the inquiry was on hold, intensifying speculation over what has been covered up here. As Albanese demanded to know near the end of Question Time, “why is it the prime minister doesn’t hold an inquiry and won’t answer a question?” That’s something we’d all like to know – perhaps tonight’s episode of Four Corners, entitled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, will be able to shed some light on the matter.

“Hopefully our representations this morning impressed upon him the broad concern in Australia, and indeed right around the world, at the shocking injustice being meted out to Julian Assange.”

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie says that a cross-party delegation of MPs received a good hearing from the US embassy in this morning’s meeting pushing for charges against the WikiLeaks founder to be dropped.

“Everyone has the right to a peaceful protest, but nobody has the right to disrupt and endanger Melburnians and lockdown a city that is already on life support.”

David Southwick, the Victorian opposition spokesperson for police, accuses Extinction Rebellion of forcing “lockdown” on Melbourne as the activist group kicks off a week of protest.

“The system isn’t broken. It was never set up for women.”
Last week’s March 4 Justice highlighted how the justice system is stacked against women, from the law, to the police, to the courts. Today, Bri Lee on the barriers to justice, and the steps being taken to reform the system.


The amount the government has so far spent from its $100 million fund to support regional economic recovery after the bushfires and COVID-19, which was announced in last year’s budget.

“Corporate leaders have ignored the Morrison government’s $4 billion JobMaker hiring scheme, forcing Treasurer Josh Frydenberg into making changes to eligibility criteria in the May budget that should give businesses multiple incentives to bring more young people into work.”


Australian companies have shunned JobMaker, with the scheme delivering only 521 new jobs in its first six weeks. Treasury expected that number to have reached at least 10,000 by now, with the program projected to deliver 450,000 jobs in two and a half years.

The list

“Paris, 1981. Three men: Man, Bon, Vo Danh, blood-brothers and survivors of the long Vietnam war. This dazzling novel is the testament of Vo Danh, a name meaning anonymous, or unknown, in Vietnamese. But testament is an inadequate description for this action-filled, philosophical thriller. It’s more like Tarantino slapstick with a postdoc in Camus and Kristeva. Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer for The Sympathizer, covering Vo Danh in earlier days. The Committed (Corsair), though, stands alone.”

“One winter’s day Walsh drove me to where he grew up with his mother, Tim and Lindy-Lou, in a small weatherboard cottage, typical of Tasmanian postwar public housing, in the northern suburbs of Hobart. He would see his father every week or two, sometimes helping him walk his racing greyhounds in the thickly wooded mountain range that lay beyond his home. Walsh recalled going to the dog races with him and praying for his father’s dog to win. ‘I still believed in God then.’ God: David Walsh’s first gambling system. The dog won.”

“There’s a protest sign I identify with whenever, at the ripe old age of 63, I find myself marching in the streets. It reads, ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit!’ or some variation thereof. On Monday, March 15, at the Women’s March 4 Justice outside Parliament House in Canberra, I saw many such signs and sighed in solidarity with the women of my vintage waving them. There were many signs that were much wittier. Like the naked Medusa holding a man’s decapitated head alongside the words: ‘Be grateful we only want justice not revenge.’ But it’s always the weariness of the long-term protester that resonates with me.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

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Vaccine rollout a (p)fizzer

The government came with good news, but the rollout remains a shambles

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Trust fall

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From the front page

The lightness of unbearable being: ‘Double Blind’

Edward St Aubyn tackles familiar themes – desire, drug use, psychoanalysis – via a fresh suite of characters

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Holgate strikes back

Scott Morrison humiliated the wrong woman

Up the river

Hope is running dry in the Murray–Darling Basin

Green house effect

Joost Bakker’s vision for sustainable housing is taking root