The Politics    Thursday, February 25, 2021

‘She said, he said’

By Rachel Withers

Image of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton speaking during Question Time today

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton speaking during Question Time today. Image via ABC News

Let’s consider what has been said

Many things have been said about the alleged incident that occurred in the office of then Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds in the early hours of March 23, 2019, but Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton today decided to challenge the prime minister for the single worst contribution.

Dutton was originally under fire over revelations he was briefed on the allegations by the AFP on February 11 but failed to pass that information on to the prime minister, admitting only that “a mistake was made” by the PMO staff he informed who apparently kept it to themselves. “If I don’t need to disclose something, I don’t,” he said of his decision not to tell Scott Morrison. It was also revealed that his press secretary Austin Wenke, who has been handling media inquiries over the case, was one of the last four people in attendance at the drinks before the alleged rape, and was one of the last people to see former staffer Brittany Higgins and her alleged attacker before they left.

But Dutton, a former police officer, soon brought about a new reason to be under fire, by using the phrase “she said, he said” to describe the alleged rape – a phrase often used to throw doubt over women’s allegations. “I wasn’t provided with the ‘she said, he said’ details of the allegation,” Dutton asserted. “It was at a higher level.” The government has handled this terribly so far, but no one until Dutton had publicly doubted Higgins.

Appalling phrasing aside, the incident is not, in fact, a “she said, he said” matter, because he hasn’t actually said anything. The alleged rapist hasn’t denied the claims, because he has not yet been interviewed by the police, nor has he spoken to the media, but he has been publicly accused of two other instances of sexual assault. 

The past two weeks certainly have seen something of a “she said, he said” pattern, although there’s more than just two people involved.

She said she was raped by a Liberal colleague in Parliament House after a night of drinking, waking up to him on top of her, crying for him to stop. She said her boss invited her to a meeting to discuss the incident in the office where it happened, and left her unsupported, and forced to choose between reporting it to the police or keeping her job.

Morrison said he was sorry, and that his wife had clarified the issue, encouraging him to think about it “as a father first”.

Reynolds said she was sorry for holding the meeting in her office, and had tried to support her former staffer as best she could. She said she didn’t know it was an alleged rape at the time of the meeting, even though her chief of staff had already sought advice on how to deal with one.

Morrison said he’d only just heard of the allegations, and that the defence minister should have told him – despite the fact numerous people in his office also knew.

Higgins said she felt she was being treated like a crisis to be managed by successive chiefs of staff, cabinet ministers and staff in the PM’s office.

Morrison said she was “confused” in her belief that she had received a call from his principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein.

She said this was akin to victim blaming.

The former director of security operations at Parliament House said he quit his job in the wake of the incident, after years of raising concerns over the way the matter was handled, including security guards unlocking the office door for the alleged rapist. Cleaners had been sent into the office the next day despite a disoriented woman having been found half-naked on the couch, sparking an inquiry into whether there had been an attempt to interfere with a suspected crime scene.

She said she was only now being made aware of key elements of her own assault through the media.

Journalist Peter van Onselen said the government was backgrounding journalists on Higgins’s partner, suggesting the man held a gripe against the government due to his experience as a former public servant.

Senator Michaelia Cash said she did not know it was an allegation of sexual assault until recently, despite a voicemail she had left telling her then staffer Higgins to “sleep tight” when media inquiries began to swirl in October 2019, and promising things were “under control”.

Morrison said he first became aware of the sexual assault allegation on February 15, when the story broke, and he’s stuck to that story, despite growing evidence that a number of people in his office and ministry knew much sooner. He said he doesn’t preside over a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

In a speech to an International Women’s Day breakfast at Parliament House this morning, headlined by two men, Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, the PM introduced a new three-word slogan: “Respect, protect, reflect.” He might want to add “deflect” to that one. Unless of course he wants to release the results of the internal investigation into who in his office knew what, and when. Now that would be an interesting case of “she said, he said”.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“We are concerned about the unintended consequences of having a hotline to report people who decline job offers. This may lead to bogus claims and add to the stress some people face in their search for employment.”

The Australian Retailers Association has joined the small business lobby in opposing the government’s “job-dobber” hotline, with ARA chief executive Paul Zahra concerned it will damage people’s employment prospects.

“In my strong view, the government has not given up anything that really matters to the integrity of the code.”

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Rod Sims rejects suggestions the government bowed to Facebook’s demands in amending the media bargaining code – even though the code will no longer apply to Facebook.

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Australia’s ranking in Brand Finance’s latest Global Soft Power Index, up from 13th position last year. Germany took out the top spot, which the United States lost, falling to 6th.

“Necessary protections for Indigenous heritage sites have been excluded from the Morrison government’s proposed environmental reforms, prompting warnings from First Nations leaders it risks another devastating incident like Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge.”

First Nations leaders say our environmental laws risk more Indigenous heritage destruction, with the Samuel Review arguing that the government should bring in greater protections “immediately”. A new bill developed by Environment Minister Sussan Ley does not include Samuel’s recommendations.

The list

“Stephen Graham, a recurring cast member in Meadows’ productions such as the 2007 movie This is England and its subsequent television series sequels, has a cinder block frame and a roiling energy … Here he reveals Joseph’s deep wounds and fearful avoidance through a performance that embodies his pain without changing him: Joseph has long, difficult conversations with Anna and then her sister-in-law, the also troubled Dinah (Niamh Algar), which are plaintive and halting, accompanied by tears and clichéd responses. No one suddenly delivers stirring monologues, nor does Meadows divert from his unblinkingly succinct framing and editing.”

“The old pattern has sadly recurred: systematic cheating (this time through chemical means) and cronyism and bribery among members of the International Olympic Committee jostling their clients to procure venues … It is understandable that many believe honour has long gone from what was once the pre-eminent observance of excellence for its own sake. It is easy to be cynical about the Olympic Games. And yet, and yet.”

“The prison’s entry gates, flanked by towers in a grim mediaeval fortified style with ‘corbelled crenellated battlements and elongated cruciform arrow slits terminated with round oillets’ are deliberately intimidating: the building was designed to threaten. And this is precisely the tension that is playing out now, in the contemporary redevelopment of Pentridge into a mixed-use retail, residential and entertainment precinct. If all goes to plan, the symbolic and architectural reversal will be absolute: from forbidding to inviting, from contained to permeable, from fearsome to fun. From punishment, we might say, to profit.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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