Note: This story discusses sexual assault.
With his government now engulfed in the scandal of its mishandling of the alleged rape of staffer Brittany Higgins, Scott Morrison faces the consequences of two long-running features of his political persona.
There is now an obvious and serious discrepancy between what Higgins has said about the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in the aftermath of her alleged assault in Parliament House, and Morrison’s own claims — reflected in material circulated to journalists — that she is wrong.
In short, Higgins says Morrison’s private secretary, former Crosby Textor luminary Yaron Finkelstein, contacted her in relation to the matter. Morrison says it didn’t happen and his office only became aware of the alleged rape last week.
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Given Higgins says she had previously decided not to formally report her assault to the police due to what she felt was political pressure, the discrepancy is troubling.
Here’s where the first of Morrison’s key characteristics comes into play: such is his reputation for lying that in the absence of compelling evidence, there’s no earthly reason to believe anything he or his office says.
As Dennis Atkins correctly pointed out last year, “there’s a special class of political liars and our Prime Minister Scott Morrison is as practised and accomplished as any in this top tier of fabulists”. Or, as Malcolm Turnbull put it this morning, Morrison’s claim is “incredible … very, very hard to believe that the PMO would not have been aware as soon as this incident occurred”.
Similar scepticism should be applied to Morrison’s convenient claim that he was the victim of a failure by his own staff, and by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, to inform him that a rape had been committed in Parliament House.
This is one of those issues where either option is appalling. A young woman has allegedly been assaulted and violated in her workplace by a fellow employee. That workplace happens to be the very centre of Australian government and democracy, inside the ministerial wing of Parliament House.
The lack of outrage is staggering.
Why wasn’t the prime minister informed one of the staff employed in the ministerial wing was an accused rapist? Why, exactly, would you not tell the PM that such a horrific incident had occurred between two Liberal staffers in the ministerial wing?
Samantha Maiden was right on the money yesterday when she asked Morrison whether there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place. Morrison dismissed the suggestion, but the failure of either Reynolds or staff to raise such a matter with him suggests there was indeed such a policy, even if never spelt out.
The alternative is that Morrison, as has so often been the case, simply can’t be believed about either his own knowledge or that of his office.
That leads to the second aspect of Morrison’s politicking that has come to the fore. Morrison has carefully cultivated a blokey persona as prime minister — cracking tinnies at the footy, talking about how important his mates are, offering a budget that ignored women — but that persona into which so much time and effort, including the taxpayer-funded expense of a private photographer to capture Morrison’s more personal moments of blokiness, has been poured, is wholly inapt for responding to yet another example of the way women are treated within Parliament House.
Morrison’s claim that he needed his wife to tell him to think of the issue as the father of daughters was staggeringly cack-handed, but straight from the blokiness playbook. Those of us who don’t have daughters, or children at all, can only marvel at the compassionate insight Morrison, having checked with the missus, must have achieved.
But in terms of substantive action, Morrison’s response, to ask a Coalition MP to “identify ways that standards and expectations and practices can be further improved” among Coalition colleagues, and a public servant to “advise me on how better those processes can work to support people when incidents of this nature arise”, is wholly inadequate.
Though it may have been a staffer that allegedly raped Higgins, MPs are the primary predators and bullies in Parliament House; asking them how standards can be “further” (?) improved is unlikely to enhance the protection of staffers who are at the total mercy of politicians.
As for processes to support people “when incidents of this nature arise”, it is the fact that such incidents must inevitably arise in such toxic workplaces that is the challenge. But most men, and particularly white men, and especially older heterosexual white men on high incomes, don’t know anything about toxic workplaces beyond those they create themselves.
Morrison’s lack of leadership — on this, as on so many other issues — flows directly from who he is as a politician.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.