The Politics    Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Silence and speculation

By Rachel Withers

Composite image of Industry Minister Christian Porter (Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Image) and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens (Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image)

Industry Minister Christian Porter (Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Image) and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens (Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image)

Many conclusions may be drawn from the government’s lack of transparency

It is a sad day for Australian women and public transparency, with the dual confirmation that important information about parliament’s most high-profile rape allegations will remain hidden from view – for now. Last night, news broke that the head of the prime minister’s department, Phil Gaetjens, had suspended (for a second time) his inexplicably drawn-out inquiry into who knew what in the prime minister’s office about Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation, on the basis that it might prejudice the ACT criminal proceedings – though there was no explanation as to why his simple inquiry has not yet been wrapped up, six months after it was announced, three and half months after it was last resumed, and after several promises it was almost finished. This morning, it was confirmed that media outlets would not be allowed to report on the already suppressed parts of the ABC’s defence to Christian Porter’s defamation claim, which he so desperately does not want the public to see, as the Federal Court ruled that Nine and News Corp cannot publish the documents they acquired through the court process. Gaetjens, in announcing his inquiry’s second suspension, said no inferences could be drawn from his decision to suspend the inquiry. On the contrary: many inferences might be drawn from the government’s ongoing cover-up of these two cases, from its refusal to hold (or even finish) inquiries to its desperate desire to see the back of such proceedings. Much might be inferred from the vast trove of information we have, even if the Morrison government refuses to see it.

The former attorney-general scored another “win” today in his quest to have as little information as possible made public regarding the heinous rape allegations levelled against him – allegations that he denies. After previously ruling that 27 pages of the ABC’s evidence be scrubbed from the public file, Justice Jayne Jagot has now ordered – as requested by Porter – that Nine and News Corp cannot use or report on the secretive pages, which they acquired from Porter’s lawyers via the proceedings. Porter’s desperate attempts to have the ABC’s evidence suppressed, then removed from the court file altogether, and now prevented from being used by journalists, have long prompted conjecture. Why, after all, would Porter – who was so outspoken in launching proceedings to clear his name – choose to walk away from the trial without clearing his name? Why is he so intent on making sure the public never sees materials regarding a crime he apparently didn’t commit?

Today’s ruling further buries the documents, with Nine and News Corp unable to use them by court decree. That’s not to say that the evidence can’t come out in other ways, with those involved still free to share what they know, but they would be at risk of themselves being sued for defamation. Similarly, media outlets can choose to report on the documents if they acquire them by means other than through the court process, but they too wouldn’t have the legal protection provided by public documents. But the culture of fear and silence that has risen up around the case has created its own insinuations, as does the government’s refusal to hold an inquiry into Porter’s fitness for office, despite endless calls and an obvious need for one.

Not that calling an inquiry into something seems to make much difference these days. The mysterious Gaetjens inquiry has seemingly failed to figure out who knew of Higgins’ allegations, despite the inquiry having been run on and off since February, and despite Gaetjens telling Senate estimates in May that it had resumed and would be completed within weeks (and despite many people having worked out much of the story for Gaetjens before he even began). Of course, there is good reason for that line of questioning to cease now that the case is finally before the courts, with a fair and unprejudiced trial of utmost importance. But why on earth has it not been completed before now? Why would Morrison, so adamant that he only found out about the rape allegation the day the story broke, not have asked Gaetjens to make it a priority to get to the bottom of this? And why, if the prime minister has nothing to hide, has the government repeatedly insisted that the results of the inquiry won’t be made public? Why is Morrison more than happy to share other reports that “exonerate” his office? There are many inferences to be made about the fact that this relatively simple investigation has been drawn out, delayed and suspended, not least that the entire “inquiry” is a cunning sham, originally aimed at distracting from the fact that Morrison pointlessly misled the nation about what he knew, and then simply left unfinished in the hope we would forget. The conclusion now being drawn is that the government won’t have to “reopen” this investigation until after the next election, meaning the handling of Higgins’ case is once again being dictated by electoral considerations.

Neither of these new blows to transparency arrive as a huge surprise, coming as they do from a prime minister’s office that abhors accountability and a government minister who has already worked ruthlessly to silence his critics. There was little expectation that we were going to learn anything meaningful from Gaetjens’ inquiry, based on the man’s track record. But we didn’t really need to. Plenty has been inferred from what they don’t want us to know.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“It’s grossly unfair to have regional centres unable to access the vaccines in the same way you can access them in cities, notwithstanding the higher case numbers there.”

Nationals MP Anne Webster calls for the government’s four-stage national plan to include regional vaccination targets.

“In many remote communities, because they feel like they’re a long way away from the cities where these things are happening, they can sometimes form a view they are protected.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison – who is facing heightened scrutiny over a leaked 2020 letter calling for “urgent and drastic action” to protect western NSW’s Indigenous population from COVID-19 – blames community complacency instead of his government’s failure to act.

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The small percentage of respondents who want Australia to “live with COVID-19, even if there are hospitalisations and deaths” in a new poll showing a low tolerance for COVID deaths. (Nuances in wording are delivering wildly divergent poll outcomes: The Australian finds that half of all respondents think restrictions should end at an 80 per cent vaccination rate.)

“Vaccinations would be mandatory for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and even hospital cooks and cleaners under a plan the nation’s peak medical body is putting to Australia’s leaders as they prepare to relax pandemic restrictions.”

The Australian Medical Association says every state and territory must make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for those working in healthcare, to ensure the system can cope with the impending rise in cases once restrictions ease.

The list

“In Australia, the pandemic has offered no such ideological rupture. That might seem an odd claim when the same party that ran a years-long debt-and-deficit scare campaign ended up introducing a wage subsidy – which is perhaps the kind of policy shift [Wayne] Swan has in mind when he talks of neoliberalism’s demise. True, we’re at a point where mass public spending is politically uncontroversial. But it’s important to recognise that this is not an ideological shift. It’s a form of emergency politics. That’s a different thing. Emergency politics is the temporary suspension of political norms, not necessarily the lasting embrace of new ones. It is meant to facilitate a return to normal, at least in theory.”

“As an undergraduate seeking to understand the Holocaust, I read Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide. It is the history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document that ‘revealed’ the Jewish plot for world conquest and became a fundamental element of the Nazi world view. Ever since, I have believed that there is nothing more dangerous in human affairs than beliefs capable of convincing their followers of the nobility of mass murder and other savage acts. For this reason, recently I set out to try to discover the thinking of the Islamic State’s leaders. The more I read the more convinced I became that the Islamic State’s barbarous behaviour could not possibly be grasped without some real familiarity with the character and content of their ideology. As so often in history, it is ideas that kill.”

“‘Interpreters don’t need to be hearing,’ Stef Linder signs to me in Auslan. ‘Deaf people can do the job.’ Throughout the pandemic, Linder has been working as an interpreter for the Victorian government’s press conferences and the ABC’s Sunday evening news bulletin. Until recently, this job would have been considered inconceivable for a Deaf person to do.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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