The Politics    Friday, February 26, 2021

A web of lies

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time yesterday. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time yesterday. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

We may never know when Morrison knew, but there’s no doubt he has lied

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.

“And I think the other thing is that it is obviously difficult for people if they’ve never had a vaccine … but they ought to think about other people rather than themselves.”

Queen Elizabeth II takes a swipe at anti-vaxxers, adding that her inoculation “didn’t hurt at all”.

“What I want in the digital world is I want the rules there, the safety that exists in the real world, to exist in the digital world.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says his government has led the charge on regulating Facebook, saying he wants the safety of the “real world” online. Perhaps he should look at regulating Parliament House.

A Neanderthal on the crossbench
This week, Craig Kelly quit the Liberal Party to sit on the crossbench. But the Morrison government is so mired in scandal, it went largely unnoticed. It’s a huge risk for the Coalition – and any action on climate change.


The amount by which the median property price in Sydney might jump if superannuation is allowed to be used for deposits, equal to $129,000.

“The federal government’s independent infrastructure adviser wants a massive expansion of renewable energy zones across Victoria, NSW and Queensland, saying more large-scale wind, solar and hydro projects are needed to secure the nation’s future energy needs.”

Infrastructure Australia says the nation needs a bigger renewable energy network, as well as more spending on dispatchable energy, including batteries and large-scale pumped hydro.

The list

“‘Do you want to know how God turns a man into a feminist?’ asked Margie Abbott, addressing a business gathering in Penrith (the God-struck man in question being her husband). ‘He gives him three daughters.’ I don’t believe it. My father dismissed women as sluts, nags, idiots and upstarts – all except me, whom he loved to the stars. How can it be that a man feels no contradiction between the rancour he bears women in general (and uppity women in particular) and a wish for his own daughter to have every opportunity? All I know is that the siring of daughters is no inoculation against misogyny.”

“Rudd was returned as Labor leader because of his apparent popularity with the Australian people. With him therefore the News Corp attack dogs went in for character assassination. With Tony Abbott, by contrast – ‘the Oxonian Rhodes scholar’, ‘the volunteer fire-fighter and surf club member’, ‘the hugely intelligent, hugely decent, down-to-earth bloke’, equally at home downing ‘beers’ and ‘writing books about political philosophy’ – the same journalists practised character beatification. Australian journalists once did not write like this. How had Australian journalism come to this? Although the explanation is complex, the foundations were laid down a quarter-century ago.”

“A common theme among a global hyperhidrosis support group, which has more than 6000 members, was they often went for years thinking they were the only sufferers because the condition is not commonly spoken about. Many express feelings of shame, loneliness and depression and are often desperate to find the right treatment or one without debilitating side effects. One young man described it as a ‘life killing’ disorder, and many speak about the great lengths they go to hide it in public.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


The Politics

Image of Anthony Albanese

Whither progress?

In a threatening climate, the first full year of the Albanese government has been defined by caution and incrementalism

6 News Australia interviews Gen Z Party founder Thomas Rex Dolan. Image via X.

Grift of the gab

Strange things are happening to our political system, and it’s time the major parties started paying attention

Voting results displayed on two large screens at the UN General Assembly’s tenth emergency special session

Ceaseless politics

The Albanese government calls for a ceasefire, and the Coalition goes on the attack

Image of Chris Bowen speaking at COP28

Not phased

What good are nice words about phasing out fossil fuels when Australia continues to expand and export?

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination