After the federal budget last year, Georgie Dent was angry. A writer and executive director of not-for-profit The Parenthood, Dent felt Josh Frydenberg’s budget had done nothing for women.
The next day, after firing off an article and a series of tweets, and in between five television interviews, she got a phone call that left her gobsmacked. It was a man at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), calling to tell her she was wrong.
Last week, Network 10’s political editor Peter van Onselen aired allegations that the PMO had been backgrounding journalists against Brittany Higgins’ partner, suggesting that as a former public servant, he had a vendetta against the Coalition.
Since then, other stories have emerged that paint a picture of an office which watches social media accounts with a Sauron-like intensity, and whose spinners are willing to hose down journalists and commentators over the most innocuous of perceived slights against Scott Morrison.
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‘No one credible is saying that’
Dent says her conversation with Morrison’s spinner was long and heated.
“I think the purpose of the phone call was to dissuade me from my position that the budget did nothing for women.”
The PMO staffer referred Dent to the government’s tax cuts, which he said benefited women too. When she pointed out they didn’t deliver for women as much as men because of the gender pay gap, the staffer told her this was because of “women’s choices”.
“No one credible is saying that,” the staffer allegedly said, about Dent’s claims the budget wasn’t delivering for women. In fact Crikey, along with several other outlets, named women as budget losers.
The attempts at media management backfired against the PMO. Dent turned #crediblewomen into a viral hashtag.
“If their objective was making any women problem go away, they failed spectacularly,” she said.
Shut up and stop posting
In the last few days, we’ve heard more about the PMO’s often desperately heavy-handed attempts to control the narrative around Morrison.
On Twitter earlier this week, Weekend Australian writer Greg Bearup recounted an incident from April 2019, right after Higgins was allegedly raped, when he’d received two angry phone calls from separate staffers at the PMO over a joke tweet about seeing Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack at the Easter Show.
Journalist Neil McMahon said he’d been called and aggressively texted twice by the PMO over recaps of ABC’s Q+A.
Who is behind Morrison’s aggressive media monitoring outfit? If you send the PMO a media request, an automatic reply lists the numbers of five media advisers.
Morrison’s chief spinner is head of communications Andrew Carswell, a former Daily Telegraph chief of staff who joined Team ScoMo when he was treasurer in 2017, and is a close member of the prime minister’s inner circle.
He’s also not afraid to get on the blower and tell journalists what he really thinks. After the Christchurch attack in 2019, Waleed Aly’s viral editorial on The Project made reference (without naming the prime minister), to a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald article, where Morrison allegedly told shadow cabinet that the Coalition should capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment.
Carswell called 10, accused the show of “failing journalism 101”, demanded an apology, and threatened to sue.
Then, at the Midwinter Ball later that year, van Onselen broke press gallery omertà when, after a ribbing from Morrison, he tweeted a series of texts from Carswell accusing his network of “ideological bias” against the prime minister, and threatening van Onselen with losing access on a trip to Washington DC.
And that’s just who we know about on record. Dent wasn’t the only person to receive a call over criticism of the budget. And given the PMO’s eagerness to call dissenters, there may well be many who’ve decided to toe the line.
A media management problem?
Van Onselen was annoying the PMO again last week, when he told ABC Radio National about the alleged backgrounding against Higgins’ partner. The PMO has refused to comment on this, and Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham (now accused of mishandling his own staffer’s alleged rape) insisted last week that Morrison would never tolerate such “grubby” tactics.
If both Birmingham and van Onselen are right, then the PMO is running behind Morrison’s back. More evidence emerged in the last week of the office and the boss appearing to be at odds. Morrison said he only learned of Higgins’ allegations when the story broke last Monday, even though his office knew three days earlier. Up to four staffers in the PMO may have known about the incident back in 2019.
The Higgins case highlights the PMO at its worst — both glass-jawed and pugnacious when it wants a journalist to shut up, while silent and deliberately evasive when it comes to an allegation of rape.
For Dent, there’s much in common between her experience and how the PMO has handled the past week.
“It symbolises so much of the way in which the Morrison government seeks to treat women and resolve what it considers women problems, and that is to tell them to be quiet, to tell them that they’re wrong, [and] to undermine their credibility.”