Note: this story contains references to sexual assault.
This is a story about power in Australia.
You were born into Liberal Party royalty. Dad was an Olympian, turned director of the Western Australia Liberals. Grandpa was an MP in Queensland under Bjelke-Petersen.
You went to Hale, Perth’s most exclusive private school, and made the national schools debating team. By the start of adulthood, you were already too big to fail.
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As a kid, dad said you’d be prime minister one day. And you believed him. At university (arts/law at UWA, naturally) you tell people you’re going to be PM. You “smut [your] way through law school” (your words). By all accounts, a real piece of work. But the drinking and the partying doesn’t stop you graduating with first class honours. The golden boy of UWA Law.
Then the rise gets meteoric. A stint at Clayton Utz, that most hard-nosed of corporate law firms. A masters degree from the London School of Economics. A finalist in Cleo Magazine’s bachelor of the year. Prosecutor at the DPP.
By your mid 30s, you’ve collected all the baubles of white collar success that make a career in politics inevitable. Twiggy Forrest and Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh are both among the referees when you go for Liberal preselection. You’re treasurer of WA before 40, and quickly touted as Colin Barnett’s successor as premier.
But everyone’s always said you were destined for bigger things, so you jump across to federal politics in 2013.
Federal parliament is full of men just like you. On paper, their credentials are unimpeachable. Paper doesn’t show the tremendous privilege — years of elite schooling, the networks that come when dad runs the party — that undergird that comfortable, gilded rise.
But a press gallery too often seduced by shiny things falls for it. For eight years, they write fawning profiles about how you’re going to be prime minister. How you work very hard. How you’re mates with Sally McManus despite hating the unions. So blown away are they by your speedy rise to the top, people ignore what you’ve actually achieved.
As WA attorney-general, you send more people to jail for unpaid fines. Your first big federal ministerial assignment is to oversee the callous, unlawful robodebt scheme. It’s now going to cost the government around a billion in payouts, although at the time you always said it was “working well.”
You also once skipped final hearings of the royal commission into institutional child abuse — a matter squarely in your portfolio — to watch cricket with John Howard.
In 2017, they made you attorney-general, the nation’s first law officer. Aside from some unsuccessful attempts at union bashing, your one big achievement (which took more than two years), was to abolish the family court, despite every relevant expert in the country saying it would be incredibly dangerous for victims of domestic violence.
But the disappointing substantive record doesn’t matter. This is a story about power in Australia. And it shows that if you look like a prime minister, walk and talk like one, are educated like one, you can coast your way to the top, and brush off anything that might inconvenience The Narrative.
Then, late last year, some of those inconveniences started to pop up.
“I’ve known him to be someone who was in my opinion, and based on what I saw, deeply sexist and actually misogynist in his treatment of women, in the way that he spoke about women,” said Kathleen Foley, a barrister who knew you from your university days told Four Corners.
That episode painted a very different picture of the future prime minister — one where he looked like a frat boy who didn’t know when the party was over.
This week, you acknowledged you were the minister at the centre of a rape allegation dating back to your youth. In a tearful press conference, you deny it and promise to keep on going. The prime minister has your back.
“It didn’t happen,” you say, repeatedly.
You remind the country that as a prosecutor, you always helped and believed victims.
This is not a judgment on your innocence, which is presumed. But it’s a reflection on power and privilege in this country, how it creates a kind of armour around people like you, that allows you to live a life free from consequence.
It created a prime ministerial aura, an assumed narrative of success which everyone enabled, but few bothered to question.
In the end, your time in parliament will pass, probably with few consequences and fewer achievements.
And there will be plenty more like you. Ambitious young men from good families, who look good in a suit. And when they rise smoothly to the top, nobody will bother to ask questions.
But the stench of this week means you will probably never be prime minister. Those questions, so rarely asked of men like you, will now always hang over your career. Perhaps that, in itself, will be your lasting achievement.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.