Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The Morrison government finds itself in the unusual position of having not one but two senior ministers in untenable positions. Christian Porter, despite his impassioned denials of rape allegations, cannot credibly remain attorney-general. And Linda Reynolds, already teetering on the precipice over her mishandling of the Brittany Higgins rape revelations and her inability to get her story to the Senate about it straight, was pushed over it last night when The Australian broke that Reynolds called Higgins a “lying cow”.

Reynolds confirmed the story by releasing a statement admitting that it was a “comment on news reports regarding surrounding circumstances that I felt had been misrepresented”. So, she thinks Higgins is a lying cow not about the rape allegation, but about what happened afterward.

The government — from Scott Morrison down — simply doesn’t get it about sexual assault and sexual harassment. It doesn’t understand the deep cultural crisis in politics that is slowly being exposed, a crisis that parallels one out in the real world.

It’s a crisis many corporations are far more advanced in dealing with, a crisis that the community understands as it sees more and more women prepared to come forward and reveal their truths about the toxic environments they have worked, studied and lived in, and the assaults, abuse and harassment that have formed the sordid underside of Australian male culture for so long.

Reynolds’ words may not have been intended as part of that culture and that crisis, not intended to dispute Higgins’ account of her sexual assault. But they do a pretty fair job of it.

Reynolds’ behaviour also reflects poor discipline and judgment. Ministerial offices are large suites, usually with open-plan areas where departmental liaison officers — who function as links between the office and the department — work and where public servants who come over to brief the minister and staff often congregate, along with any other visitors who happen to be there. For Reynolds to vent her anger at Higgins in such a well-traversed space, rather than in the privacy of her office or in that of her chief of staff, reflects poor judgment, which Reynolds put down to stress.

That’s understandable. Reynolds has been under immense stress. But nothing compared to the stress that Higgins has been placed under through no fault of her own. When she returns from sick leave, Reynolds should be letting the PM know that the stress is too much for her and that it’s time for her to go.

Peter Fray

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