Another day, another string of unsurprising news underscoring the toxic, deep-seated misogyny, indifference to sexual assault and incredible dishonesty in Parliament House.
When Channel 10 reported yesterday afternoon that male Liberal Coalition staffers had filmed themselves jerking off an a female MP’s desk and sent the images to the boys it was met with a shrug. This is the kind of shit everyone knows goes down in Parliament. But until the Me Too-esque shocks of the past month nobody really bothered to spell it out explicitly. It’s just how Parliament, and politics, is.
That was also the twisted logic guiding the Morrison government’s haplessly callous response to Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation, which returned yesterday to haunt those so desperate to throw it under the rug, thanks to a Four Corners episode, and a series of Senate estimates gaffes that forced the prime minister to deny misleading Parliament.
This morning Scott Morrison tried to get on the front foot, holding a press conference where he described the “listening” he’d been doing to women over the past month, and expressing his disgust about the lewd behaviour in Parliament.
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But after a month of tone-deafness and unanswered questions, that act of contrition was deeply unsatisfying.
The questions left behind
Let’s start with the Higgins failure, a scandal the Morrison government simply cannot spin away.
So many people knew something terrible had happened to a young female staffer two years ago. So many people shrugged and looked the other way.
Since Higgins’ alleged rape by a fellow staffer was first made public in February, the denials, never-ending spin and mumbled half-truths have left the public with even more unanswered questions. We’re not really sure, for example, just how many Coalition MPs knew about the incident, why everyone seemed to know about it before Morrison did, and why police and government agencies seemed desperate to drop the ball at every opportunity.
Last night only dredged up more questions about how Higgins’ allegation was lost amid Parliament’s smoke and mirrors. Nikola Anderson, the security guard on shift the night of the alleged assault, said despite the Canberra bubble’s incredible propensity for gossip, the incident had all but vanished.
“I heard nothing more about this case … until now,” she said.
The prime minister ducks and weaves
Anderson reinforced the incredible slipperiness that has accompanied Morrison ever since the Higgins news first broke. In February the prime minister had claimed the alleged perpetrator was fired over a security breach. But Anderson, right there at the time, says there was no security breach.
This morning, Morrison said Anderson “doesn’t have the full information”.
But while he was casting doubt on Anderson’s claims, he was denying that he’d misled Parliament. Yesterday Phil Gaetjens, Morrison’s former chief of staff, butler, and current secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, told Senate estimates he paused a review into what the prime minister’s office knew about the situation on direction from the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
Despite repeated questions about the progress of the review, Morrison hadn’t mentioned its pause. At the same time, AFP boss Reece Kershaw was telling another estimates sitting he hadn’t asked Gaetjens to pause the inquiry. Gaetjens continued to stonewall through the estimates session.
All this — from the constant gaffes to the awkward dishonesty — was humming in the background when Morrison fronted up to the media this morning to lash out at the “rubbish and crap” women have to put up with in politics.
He was particularly disgusted by the staffer masturbating on an MP’s desk, and offered a more unequivocal denunciation than he has at any point on the Higgins allegation.
But even that subtle admission of a failure to read the room didn’t stop him falling back on his base political instincts. Responding to a question from Sky News’ Andrew Clennell about whether he’d lost control of his ministerial staff, Morrison brought up an internal sexual harassment complaint at News Corp.
“Let’s not all of us who sit in glass houses here get into that,” he said.
Clennell has since confirmed no Sky employee is subject to the HR investigation Morrison referred to.
Morrison scolded journalists who asked about him misleading Parliament: “I expect these statements not to be mischaracterised.”
Morrison’s brief change in tone won instant praise from the ABC, and will probably be reported as a big shift. But the deflection, and the unanswered questions, remain.
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