In Monday’s column, I wrote – of the holes in the government’s timeline on former staffer Brittany Higgins’s rape allegations – that “it’s clear someone has lied”. In the past five days, it’s become clear that many people have lied, and potentially to protect the prime minister. It will likely soon be established exactly who hasn’t been telling the truth, and about what and when (many journalists are already doing a great job of laying out the particulars). Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is so far the only one to publicly correct herself, about meetings with the police. But there’s surely more to come.
Many still suspect Scott Morrison has lied about being kept in the dark until the story broke on February 15. It wouldn’t be his only falsehood. The prime minister told a bald-faced and easily disprovable lie in Question Time yesterday. When asked why he had “rebuked” Reynolds for not telling him about the incident as soon as she knew, Morrison said he had merely made a “reference” to Reynolds, and “would have hoped” that “some minimised reference” could have been brought to his attention. But his words the day after the story broke, when asked whether her failure to inform him was acceptable? “It is not, and it shouldn’t happen again.” That was widely reported then as a rebuke, and if it was not meant to be, Morrison did not correct it.
This is not the same as lying about when he knew, and it’s not proof that he did. But it’s a solid reminder of the ease with which lies slip from his lips. Last Tuesday, Morrison denied Higgins’s claim that his principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, called her around the time of the Four Corners sexual harassment episode, with the PM suggesting she was “confused” and all but calling her a liar (Higgins seemed to take it that way, too). This Tuesday, he attempted to twist the truth over the Frank Zumbo allegations when Zumbo’s boss, Craig Kelly, resigned, saying both that he had “long expressed” concerns about the staffer to Kelly, and that he had only become aware of the reports “over the past few weeks”. As News Corp journalist Eliza Barr noted, she had emailed the prime minister’s office about it three times in August 2020.
Do Morrison’s staff not tell him anything? So many in his office have now been shown to have known about the March 23 “incident”, from Reynolds’s acting chief of staff Fiona Brown; to the “mortified” PMO staffer who received a text about it and promised, on April 3, to raise it with the PM’s chief of staff, John Kunkel; to Kunkel himself; to Finkelstein. Some say they didn’t know it was a rape allegation. But Reynolds knew it was a rape allegation in March 2019, Senator Michaelia Cash since at least February 5, and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton since at least February 11. Dozens of other government staffers knew too, five of whom Higgins told directly, and as Leigh Sales noted alongside her timeline of events on 7.30 last night, it’s “impossible to believe that the rumour mill wasn’t in overdrive”. It certainly looks like Morrison presides over a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture, or at least a “don’t tell Scotty” culture, whatever he says to the contrary.
But even if we accept that none of these people told Morrison when they heard the allegations, it beggars belief that he was not told on Friday, February 12, when journalist Samantha Maiden contacted his office about the story. It more than beggars belief. It boggles the mind. If he’s lying, he’s forced every person who knows into the lie with him. And now they all must stick with it.
Why would Morrison feel the need to claim he only learnt of the allegations when the public did? It wouldn’t have been so bad for him to admit that he knew earlier, as had Reynolds and Cash and Dutton. If he lied, it seems to be so that he could justify his lack of action, in order that he could feel “shattered” about the news along with the rest of us. He had to claim he didn’t know about an alleged rape, a staff dismissal and a policy inquiry into a suspected crime scene cover-up within his workplace so that he could come out and be the man of action.
Perhaps Scott Morrison is telling the truth in claiming that he first learnt of Brittany Higgins’s alleged rape on February 15, 2021. But to act shocked, to claim he’s just discovered how toxic Parliament House is for women, and that there is a rampant sexism problem in a workplace where one in eight staffers surveyed say they have been harassed or assaulted in the last year; where numerous women have come forward alleging assault before; where political staffers regularly “background” against women who even think about coming forward; where government ministers have been featured in a Four Corners exposé into workplace behaviour (an exposé the government tried to shut down); and about which, it seems, hundreds of women have a story to tell, with a “surge of women reporting sexual assault to police” this week?
That might be the biggest lie of them all.