Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Take the fall
A woman is going to take the blame. Again.

Image of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds during Question Time in the Senate yesterday

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds during Question Time in the Senate yesterday. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Image

What should we make of the fact that Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has taken medical leave and been admitted to hospital (the second central figure in this saga to be admitted), just hours before she was due to front the media for the first time since her former staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she was sexually assaulted in the minister’s office?

There is no doubt Reynolds is under extreme pressure, following days of scrutiny in the Senate, with her story having been picked apart, forcing her to correct the record. Reynolds was brought to tears in the Senate last week, left unable to answer unrelated questions after apologising to Higgins a second time. She has been used as a scapegoat by Morrison, who publicly rebuked her for not informing him of the allegation, despite the fact that a number of other people in his inner circle clearly knew. “At least five” of her fellow Liberal MPs have anonymously called for her to resign, saying she should have provided more support to Higgins.

It’s very possible that Reynolds does require medical attention for a pre-existing condition (“as advised by her cardiologist”), or simply for stress. This is a horrible matter to be dealing with, just as it would have been a horrible matter to deal with, as a female boss, at the time of the assault. There’s no doubt Reynolds, who says she always tried to act in Higgins’s best interests, has handled things atrociously, but there’s also no doubt that the week has been highly distressing to her. It’s harder to believe that she was “desperate” to appear at the National Press Club today, and only cancelled her speech “reluctantly”, as Greg Hunt has claimed. The National Press Club asked Marise Payne, who is the acting defence minister, to take her place and deliver the speech (about the need for Australia to build up its defence forces to respond to growing military risks in the Pacific), but she declined as well.

It’s not necessarily cowardly for Reynolds to take this time if her health is at risk, but she cannot expect the questions to go away when she returns. And the government should not expect them to go away if she ultimately resigns, which is looking more and more likely. It means a woman is probably going to take the fall for this – an alleged crime committed by a man, enabled and protected by a patriarchal power structure, and known or mishandled or disregarded by so many men before it became public (Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton being only the latest one).

Reynolds did many things wrong here (not least holding a meeting with Higgins in the very room in which she alleges she was raped), and she’s clearly lied about certain things. Higgins said she was made to feel unsupported by her former boss, and has accused Reynolds of trying to use her as a human shield to avoid questions over the past week. As much as Reynolds insists she tried to support Higgins once she knew of the allegations, Reynolds failed her young staffer. 

But she’s also been personally blamed – over many others – for not telling the prime minister, so that he can maintain the increasingly questionable line that he did not know. She has defended the decision, even while being rebuked for it, saying she did it to protect Higgins’s privacy (an arguably valid excuse, if true). She might even be being forced to defend a course of action she didn’t actually take, in order to protect Morrison. 

While there is no excuse for not making Higgins feel supported, Reynolds was also working within a party that encourages women’s silence – not that the prime minister presides over a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, of course… Higgins has graciously extended well wishes to Reynolds today, adding that she hopes “there will actually be some fundamental reform to the MOP(S) Act for vulnerable staff and improvements to the workplace culture” from “this whole horrible situation”. It’s a reminder that the system Reynolds and Higgins were working within was deeply flawed, stacked against victims reporting.

This doesn’t make Reynolds the victim here – that terrible honour is reserved for Higgins. But Reynolds’s public scapegoating and subsequent hospitalisation is a reminder of just how hostile a place the parliament is for women. Former Labor MP Emma Husar has also reminded us of this today, saying there is a “boys club culture of cover-up” on both sides of politics, blasting the ALP for being “sanctimonious” about the current allegations while adopting a “do-nothing approach” to sexual harassment in its own ranks. Then there’s Louise Milligan’s analysis of the absolute fury being felt by staffers and pollies, with women privately telling her of many more instances of discrimination, sexual harassment and assault across the political spectrum (though concentrated on the right). Many more allegations have come out this week about the alleged rapist, who was part of a political culture that allowed him to offend again and again. Other ministers, including Greg Hunt and Simon Birmingham, are alleged to have mishandled similar allegations.

It’s also not to say Reynolds shouldn’t resign. But it will be disappointing to see yet another woman take the fall while protecting the prime minister over a scandal that the whole government is responsible for. There’s something deeply rotten in Australian politics, and removing Linda Reynolds will not get rid of it.

“The racially motivated attack on a First Nations woman is another instance of a disconcerting trend in right wing extremism and white supremacy in Australia. We cannot brush this aside or be complacent. We must remain vigilant and challenge this in our community.”

Labor MP Linda Burney points to the rise in right-wing extremism, after a man with a swastika painted on his forehead attacked an Indigenous woman with a makeshift flamethrower.

“If you accept the common sense of that, why can’t you accept common sense that religious schools are entitled to require a general assent to the beliefs of the particular religion that inspires the teaching of that school?”

Former prime minister John Howard argues that faith-based schools should be able to hire based on beliefs, because the Labor Party doesn’t have to hire Liberals. Sure.

Why won’t house prices go down?
Australian property prices have just hit a record high – despite predictions the market would crash during the pandemic. So what happened? What will it take for prices to go down?

The half-year profit up to December 31 for Nine Entertainment, up 79 per cent despite “challenging advertising market conditions”.

“Employees who blow the whistle on serious white-collar crime will be eligible for immunity from civil and criminal action under a new policy announced by the corporate regulator – but freedom comes with a catch.”


White-collar crime whistleblowers will get legal immunity, but it will only cover the first participant to disclose criminal conduct to ASIC.

The list

“Your order is on-board for delivery! (Since you selected Standard Delivery your order will go via Perth, unless you live in Perth, in which case it’ll go via Cairns.) Please note: We’re unable to Safe Drop your parcel.”

“I have been following the story of concussion in sport since 2014, when I investigated the AFL’s approach to CTE for ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing. Former Sydney midfielder Jude Bolton told me then that he was terrified of CTE. He had played 325 games for the Swans, and held the records for most tackles in a career and the most tackles in a game. Bolton told me he’d been concussed in the 2012 grand final, and his recollection of the finish of one of the most thrilling games in AFL history was patchy at best. He couldn’t remember whether he finished on the park or off. He had to check the tape.”

“Another aspect raising warning flags is that the merger’s key backers are a Coalition MP who’s soon to be out of parliament and a female senator who believes there needs to be a Minister for Men. Kevin Andrews – who was moved out of the Social Services portfolio after trying to implement ‘relationship counselling vouchers’ – is the chair of the joint select committee on Australia’s family law system. His offsider in the enterprise is One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, who has been campaigning for the abolition of the Family Court since 1996. She has become notorious for serially making unproven claims that women habitually lie about family violence.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

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