Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull (Image: AAP)

Note: this story contains references to sexual assault.

Among the many politicians who have not covered themselves in glory over the Christian Porter debacle is one who deserves a special mention today: Malcolm Turnbull.

Yes, that would be the same former prime minister who has been in the media each day this week leading the moral outrage and coming up with ever more bizarre theories to keep himself at the centre of the scandal.

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And that would be the very same PM who actually appointed Porter as attorney-general despite admitting knowledge about his womanising and his reservations about the appointment.

Last Sunday, as the story was gaining momentum, Turnbull used an appearance at the genteel Adelaide Writers’ Week to call for an inquest into the death of a woman who had accused Porter of a 1988 rape. Porter today denied the allegations and is refusing to stand aside.

By Monday he was calling for the mystery minister to out himself because he “owed it to his colleagues and the country”.

By Tuesday he had raised the prospect that the woman did not in fact die by suicide — in which case her death, presumably, was the subject of foul play.

“We don’t know for sure that she took her own life,” he said. “We only know for sure she’s dead.”

Leaving aside how painful and offensive the suggestion must be for the victim’s family and friends, his behaviour is not totally out of character. He makes that other former PM Kevin Rudd look shy and retiring.

Turnbull’s relevance deprivation syndrome is one thing but his rewriting of history has been at a whole other level. His criticism of the weakness of the current Liberal government on numerous policies would have you imagine they were never smart enough to give him a try as PM where he might have achieved something.

The renewed love affair between him and the ABC conveniently forgets those years when he treated it as badly, if not worse, than any of his conservative predecessors.

So it was on the ABC after the infamous Four Corners “Inside the Canberra bubble” episode raising questions about Porter’s women problem that Turnbull rushed to admit he too had heard the rumours and even gave the man a good dressing-down.

“He knew that I was considering appointing him attorney-general, which of course is the first law officer of the Crown and has a seat on the national security committee,” he said.

“The risk of compromise is very, very real.

“You know, it’s not just the stuff of spy novels. People who put themselves into positions where they can be compromised or blackmailed are really taking risks, and unacceptable risks.”

While I have always given Turnbull credit for implementing the unpopular “bonk ban” when he publicly called out then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, we now know he was aware of a much broader problem which remained hidden.

It should be made clear, however, that there is no suggestion he was aware of the historic rape allegations which he said he only became aware of in December 2019 when he and his wife, Lucy, replied with a letter of support.

It is probably no surprise that Turnbull’s successor, Scott Morrison, has taken wilful blindness, deafness, and dumbness to new levels.

Although the prime minister cannot be blamed for appointing Porter attorney-general, he can be blamed for keeping him there. In the pre-Christmas reshuffle after the Four Corners exposé, the other womanising minister, Alan Tudge, was promoted.

And don’t forget that after the Four Corners exposé, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher sent a bullying letter to ABC chair Ita Buttrose demanding to know why politicians’ private lives and “consensual sex” was a subject for scrutiny.

Waiting for an apology from you too, minister.

The historic rape allegation is a whole other issue but Morrison, the cabinet, and the entire government were given a reprieve with the much-legalled milder Four Corners story — which was nonetheless a warning that should have been heeded.

It took Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape and subsequent stories once again about the toxic culture for young female staffers, for them to finally start to at least look like they are taking action.

And don’t think Labor is off the hook. Don’t think there’s not at least one senior shadow cabinet member with a history of womanising and staff dalliances who has lawyered up.

It’s not just Libs protecting their own; it’s the whole political class protecting themselves.

And sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending not to hear the growing cacophony won’t cut it any more.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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