The Politics    Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Sham inquiries

By Rachel Withers

Sham inquiries

Prime Minister Scott Morrison © Parliament of Australia

Why are we even waiting on the Gaetjens report?

The Prime Minister’s Office has all but confirmed that the various internal investigations into how it managed the fallout from Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations are completely and utterly bogus, aimed at covering up everything it did wrong. It’s not as if we didn’t know this already, whether from the fact that the inquiries are taking months, or the fact that one of them was quietly suspended on the advice of police (advice that police had to be prompted into saying came from them, after they said it hadn’t). Or simply from the fact that the prime minister appointed his close allies to run these probes. But after yesterday – a day in which it was revealed there was no guarantee Phil Gaetjens’ report into “who knew what when” would be made public, and in which John Kunkel’s report that “exonerated” the PMO of backgrounding was made very public – it’s clear the reports are meaningless.

Today, Scott Morrison’s characterisation of the four-page Kunkel letter as finding “in the negative” has been blindly accepted and reported in many corners – despite it stating that corridor conversations did go on – while the rebuttal from Higgins’ partner, David Sharaz, which he gave in a statement to Guardian Australia this morning, has received little attention at all. Questions are still being asked about the Gaetjens report and the secrecy surrounding it, as Labor pushes for its release. But what chance is there of it finding or revealing anything that might make the PMO look bad when it’s being run by a Morrison loyalist, with any PMO denial taken as fact?

In his statement to Guardian Australia, Sharaz critically assessed the Kunkel investigation, which was unable to “make a finding” that the alleged backgrounding took place after talking to all senior staff. “The PM’s chief of staff undertakes an investigation into his own office and finds it’s functioning well,” Sharaz wrote. “How unexpected. Even the most cynical person would see this for what it is – PMO staffers protecting themselves.” Labor’s Tanya Plibersek tried to keep the questions surrounding the Kunkel findings alive in today’s extremely fiery Question Time. “Why did the report prepared by the prime minister’s chief of staff blame journalists for smearing Brittany Higgins’ loved ones?” she asked, in reference to the fact that it confirmed conversations had taken place but blamed journalists for initiating them. “Does he seriously expect this house to believe journalists – not his own office – were at fault?” He does, and in the murky world of the “Canberra bubble” he has created, he may just get his way. It’s shocking, considering the fact the report blames journalists, that so much of the media appears to have accepted its findings at face value.

They aren’t the only ones taking things at face value, with Kunkel seemingly more than happy to accept the denials of those he was supposedly investigating. Morrison’s chief of staff writes in his report that “all senior members of the media team rejected the allegation of backgrounding” and then moves on, even while acknowledging that conversations had transpired, happy to accept their accounts that gossiping was initiated by members of the press. He appears to have only interviewed a small handful of journalists, with one saying they had heard of instances of backgrounding by the PMO from another journalist, whom they declined to name. The names of the three staff members believed to be responsible for the backgrounding are well known (though have since been removed from articles, notes commentator Ronni Salt). But their denials were obviously more than enough for Kunkel – just as Porter’s was for the prime minister. Denials hold a lot of power in the Morrison government.

The Kunkel inquiry is apparently done and dusted, with the PM no doubt hoping the backgrounding allegations permanently sidelined. But attention remains fixed on Gaetjens’ more controversial who-what-when investigation, now due within “weeks”, which many hope will catch Morrison himself in a big lie over when he found out about the rape allegation. Labor MP Peta Murphy today raised questions about Gaetjens’ estimates non-answers on the ABC, noting that the head of the public service had “acted as though the Senate didn’t have any right to ask him questions”. “It’s an investigation into who in the prime minister’s office knew what, when, and who they told,” she went on. “It is not an investigation into whether people in the prime minister’s office have been abused or allegedly raped.” After seeing Kunkel’s report, it seems more likely Gaetjens’ will be an investigation into whatever staff in the prime minister’s office say they knew, and little else.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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