Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

100 days of deception
The government’s Higgins cover-up continues

Image of Phil Gaetjens

Phil Gaetjens in Senate Estimates, May 25, 2021

It has now been more than 100 days since former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins came forward with allegations that she was raped by a colleague at work and then let down by her party colleagues, and the government remains as committed to concealing its callous mismanagement of the incident as ever. Senate estimates today remained focused on the government’s handling of the allegations, after it was revealed yesterday that no changes had been made in terms of how an incident would be handled if it happened now. The women of Labor and the Greens used two separate committees – Finance and Public Administration, and Legal Affairs – to hammer a minister, a head of a department and the AFP commissioner on the statuses of the confoundingly numerous lines of inquiry. The three men evaded and squirmed and continued to act, disingenuously, as though they had Higgins’ interests at heart. The hammering continued in Question Time, with the prime minister sensationally revealing that the report into whether his media office had backgrounded against Higgins’ partner had “found in the negative”. The four-page report, tabled in the House of Representatives, has now been made public, and as many note, it didn’t find that the backgrounding didn’t happen, merely that no evidence was found proving it did.

Throughout the course of the morning, it was also revealed that the report into who in the Prime Minister’s Office knew what and when will be completed within “weeks”, with no guarantee it will be made public, and that the AFP will provide a brief of evidence on the case to the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions in the coming weeks.

The most consequential questioning of the day took place in the Finance and Administration Committee, where senators Penny Wong and Katy Gallagher were able to grill Phil Gaetjens, the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, representing Morrison, on the sham investigations being carried out within the PMO – one into who knew what when, and another into whether backgrounding took place – receiving various answers that left them crying “cover-up”. Gaetjens said he would likely finalise his “who knew what when” inquiry soon, but would not commit to the report being made public, citing “confidentiality” for the staff members involved. And he would not even comment on how many interviews he had undertaken, due to “privacy”. An interview with Higgins herself is scheduled shortly. The senators demanded to know how it was possible that it could take more than 100 days to figure out something so simple, with Gaetjens citing that two-month “pause” undertaken “on the advice of the AFP”. (That “advice” caused some conflicting accounts in the last estimates, with the AFP commissioner walking back implications that he had not asked for a pause when this contradicted Gaetjens’ account.)

Birmingham, meanwhile, was questioned by Wong over the way the various investigations had been “dragged out” to avoid answering simple questions. “Do you feel no shame about that?” she asked. Gallagher quizzed him on the inquiry being undertaken by Morrison’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, into whether the infamous backgrounding had taken place, about which Birmingham had no information to share (despite the fact the inquiry had already been finalised, it now seems). Gallagher suggested things had gotten to the point where Higgins was being unfairly pressured to name the journalists involved, after already naming the staff she believed were responsible. Journalist Peter van Onselen, once so fond of detailed inquiries into such allegations, tweeted that Gallagher was in a “coward’s castle”, accusing staff “without evidence”. But van Onselen was himself quote-tweeted by Higgins, who noted that he was the one back in February calling out the backgrounding.

Kunkel’s four-page report into the investigation – which the prime minister clearly wanted saved for his dramatic reveal in Question Time, with its focus on grandstanding over grilling – claims that all senior members of the PMO media team denied backgrounding against Higgins’ partner, David Sharaz, who used to work in media himself. The report noted that corridor conversations were had, suggesting that it was journalists who had raised questions with staff. Kunkel writes that he could not make a finding of negative backgrounding, and that any such finding “would be based upon hearsay” – not unlike the dirt alleged to have been shared – “in some instances, second- or third-hand”. Denials, it seems, will be faithfully accepted, and second-hand information not considered, in internal investigations into how the prime minister’s office handled things.

“Legislating the ban on spit hoods is the critical move we require to ensure the weight of their use, linked to many injuries and deaths, is fully recognised and those who utilise these archaic devices are held accountable.”

The sister of Wayne “Fella” Morrison, who died after having a spit hood placed over his head while in custody, calls for a full and immediate ban on the hoods. An inquest into Morrison’s death is ongoing.

“I think the biggest impact on hesitancy is, frankly, sensationalist media reporting.”

Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy blames the media for AstraZeneca vaccine hesitancy, despite he, the prime minister, the health minister and the chief medical officer having held a late-night emergency press conference to announce a pause on its use on people aged under 50.

The government’s war on charities
The Morrison government is contemplating new laws that could see charities held responsible for minor legal breaches by their members and supporters. The sector says the changes are an attempt to stifle protest. Today, Mike Seccombe on why the government is targeting charities.


The percentage of Essential poll respondents who believe the government has a “clear plan” for the vaccine rollout, with 42 per cent suspecting there is a plan but it hasn’t been properly communicated. The remaining 32 per cent are not confident a plan exists.

“On the eve of National Sorry Day, the Australian Greens have urged the federal government to adopt a national Stolen Generations compensation package.”

Greens senator Lidia Thorpe calls for a compensation scheme that would provide a $200,000 lump-sum payment to each Stolen Generations survivor – 24 years after the “Bringing Them Home” report recommended a national compensation fund.

The list

“Kathryn Heyman once had another name, and things happened to her that she has never spoken about. Although in her fiction there has often been a sense of a phantom story, in her most recent novel, Storm and Grace, a forensic analysis of a controlling relationship between a man and a woman, the story consistently sheeted through. It was female fury.”

“In December 2018, Luke Munday from south-west Sydney was charged after he allegedly assaulted his pregnant girlfriend when she requested that he stop playing Fortnite. He had inadvertently livestreamed the argument while playing the game, and viewers of the feed called the police. In the same month, Manly Sea Eagles centre Dylan Walker allegedly hit his fiancée during a dispute over a video game. In 2016, Daniel Chapman, a 20-year-old man from Sydney’s outer west, stabbed his father to death after he disconnected the internet cable. Internationally there has been a spate of similar incidents related to online gaming.”

“The inescapable picture is of a bloke past his prime. Labor has backed in behind the slogan ‘On your side’, but Albanese’s visible wear and tear raises the latent question about what someone who appears to have so many kilometres on the tyres could actually deliver. This is especially the case for the many voters who still don’t know who Albanese is. The compare and contrast with the bustling, bullish energy of Morrison – just five years younger but projecting a lot more life force – is much in the prime minister’s favour.”

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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Border farce

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Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

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