It’s unusual for a political cover-up to fall apart so swiftly. More unusual that it combines with a revelation a prime minister had misled Parliament. Rarer still that it was the prime minister’s hand-picked chief bureaucrat who drew attention to it. Probably unprecedented that it happened the day a government lost complete control on a long-running issue.
A policy disaster involving superannuation getting flung in the bin was just small change. A staffer getting sacked for a “solo sex act” on a female MP’s desk was barely mentioned in dispatches.
Yesterday rivals the worst days of the Gillard and Abbott governments for sheer, unadulterated political disaster. And at the centre of it all is Scott Morrison, a grubby non-leader who is now trapped in a political swamp of his own creation. And what a fetid swamp it is. The stench emanating from this outfit, and its so-called leader, is overpowering.
The role of Phil Gaetjens, veteran Liberal Party staffer and chief bag-carrier for Morrison, in ensnaring his master is remarkable. As a public servant, Gaetjens always made a fine political hack. Yesterday, he needed to be a good bureaucrat, to dead-bat, distract and deter questions at Senate estimates, but he proved incapable of political or bureaucratic role. The head of Prime Minister & Cabinet usually doesn’t show up at estimates, being somehow too important for accountability. And Gaetjens’ inexperience in that forum showed itself in crucial missteps.
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First, of course, Gaetjens revealed that he had halted his investigation into who knew about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins and why, miraculously, no one of the cast of thousands who knew thought to tell the prime minister. Moreover, he said he had told Scott Morrison of that decision on March 9.
As even the centrist, both-sides press gallery hacks pointed out, this exposed Morrison as having misled Parliament, given last week on March 18, he had responded to an opposition question by insisting Gaetjens was continuing to conduct his inquiry and that “he has not provided me with a further update about when I might expect that report”.
Gaetjens had updated him, nine days before — and the update was that the investigation was shut down indefinitely.
It’s about as close to an open and shut case of a prime minister lying to parliament as you’re ever going to get.
Gaetjens justified his decision to shut down the inquiry — and his refusal to answer any questions, contrary to the prime minister’s assurance last week — on the basis that the AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw had told him to, as it was endangering the AFP’s criminal investigation of Higgins’ alleged rape.
Problem was, Kershaw was at estimates downstairs in the main committee room at that very moment. Kristina Keneally did the honours there and asked him directly if he had ever done such a thing. Kershaw denied it.
After that embarrassment, Kershaw within two hours had reversed himself completely and issued a statement saying “I confirm I informed Mr Gaetjens on 9 March it was strongly advisable to hold off”. A very handy turnaround from the AFP head. One wonders what phone calls were made from Parliament offices to Kershaw’s mobile.
So Gaetjens had managed to drop his prime minister and the AFP commissioner in it. But he wasn’t done yet, not by any stretch. He still had one grave to dig, this time for himself.
In a spectacular misjudgment, Gaetjens declared that he had paused the inquiry “for the benefit of Ms Higgins”.
In the ensuing free-for-all of condemnation that Gaetjens was using the welfare of Higgins — whose welfare has thus far been a distant last in the calculations of the government — as an excuse to refuse to answer questions, he was asked if he had actually spoken to Higgins.
No, he hadn’t, he replied, because she’d said she wanted her privacy respected.
So, Gaetjens was tasked with finding out when staff from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) knew about Higgins, and Higgins herself has recounted her own contact with people within the PMO in the aftermath of her alleged assault that contradicted the claims of the prime minister, and yet Gaetjens not merely hadn’t spoken to her but evidently was never going to speak to her.
Doesn’t exactly do much for the argument that the “Gaetjens inquiry” was ever anything more than a cover-up. Not to mention the offensive sight of an old, powerful male declaring he knew best what was in the interests of a young woman who claims to have been raped.
Gaetjens also refused to answer when asked if any PMO staff had engaged lawyers for his inquiry — a sure sign that someone had. That matched Morrison’s persistent refusal in the House of Reps to answer whether his office had backgrounded journalists against Higgins’ partner David Sharaz to discredit Higgins — also a sure sign someone had.
After Morrison had again parsed his words to avoid answering about Sharaz, and insisted he hadn’t misled the House, the government’s long-running effort to avoid a royal commission into veterans’ suicides fell apart with the House unanimously passing a motion in support of one.
Elsewhere at estimates, alleged Minister for Women Marise Payne revealed the government had dumped its plan to force domestic violence victims to raid their own super, a hare-brained idea cooked up within the Liberal war room against superannuation (“let’s see them oppose this — releasing super for domestic violence — how can they object!?” You can almost see young Liberal staffers high-fiving each other, hopefully having washed their hands first).
The wanking staffers arrived as a sort of reverse grace note to a day when everything the Morrison government touched, gesticulated toward or glanced at turned to shit.
A staffer was sacked shortly after the footage emerged, with others likely to exit. No doubt Scott Morrison was furious. I mean, seriously, even for this government, WTF?
But why wouldn’t young, entitled Liberal staffers take their cue from a sleazy, corrupt government that not merely evades but mocks the idea of accountability?
Where on earth would they get the idea they could behave so disgustingly without consequence?
Well, the answer to that is pretty clear, Scott.