It’s an issue that keeps appearing within the Liberal Party and this time, there has been a serious incident of sexual assault in Parliament House, where a female staffer was raped by an up-and-coming Liberal Party operative. It has been alleged that Brittany Higgins was raped in the office of the Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds, an incident that occurred a few weeks before the 2019 federal election.
And the evidence so far seems like there has been a cover-up of grand proportions: steam cleaning of the office where the incident occurred; pressure on staffers to protect the reputation of the Liberal Party and the government; and ministers who were keen to ensure the news of the incident wasn’t leaked in the lead up to the 2019 federal election.
There were many senior people within the government who would have known, including the Prime Minister, but were hoping the incident would just disappear. And it did disappear, until Higgins went public on 16 February when she was interviewed on The Project by Lisa Wilkinson, almost two years after the sexual assault occurred.
Sexual harassment and abuse are incidents that have been alleged in all political parties: the Greens, One Nation, Labor, but it appears to be far more prevalent within the Liberal and National parties.
The rural women’s advocate, Catharine Marriott, alleged that she was sexually harassed by former National Party leader, Barnaby Joyce, at an event at the Kurrajong Hotel in Canberra in 2016. The former National Party member for Mallee, Andrew Broad, resigned after reports revealed he’d been using ‘sugar daddy’ websites to arrange dates with young women while on overseas parliamentary business.
Soon after Scott Morrison became Prime Minister in 2018, Liberal MP Julia Banks resigned due to the “toxic sexism within the party”, declaring it was “years behind the business world”, and her resignation left the Coalition with only 12 women from its 74 MPs in the lower house at the time.
The former Liberal Party member for Gilmore, Ann Sudmalis, alleged bullying and sexism was taking place against many women in the party, claiming her Liberal Party adversary, Gareth Ward, had “flexed his vengeance on strong Liberal women …he doesn’t just get even, he annihilates anyone who opposes him”.
More recently, there were the reports of federal Ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge involved in affairs with their young female staffers, with Porter engaging in inappropriate behaviour with women in the late-night bars of Canberra.
Morrison has announced that the allegation of rape in the office of the Minister for Defence is “a wake-up call” but that’s exactly what he said when the claims of sexism and bullying of women in the Liberal Party were made in 2018. It’s exactly the same words he used when it was found that two of his ministers were engaged in inappropriate relationships with female staffers.
In response, advisers from the Prime Minister’s office backgrounded the media about the current partner of Higgins, David Sharaz, a former press gallery journalist, suggesting he was a disgruntled former public servant with “a vendetta against the government” and he was the prime motivator behind the revelations of the incident.
Far from this being “a wake-up call”, the Liberal Party doubled-down and started smearing someone from its own side of politics: Morrison is just not getting a clear message about the seriousness of sexual violence against women and what this incident means for politics, and nor is anyone else from within the Liberal Party.
Morrison’s initial response to the incident was purely political, and he shifted into media-management mode quickly:
“I said yesterday in the Parliament, that we had to listen to Brittany and I have listened to Brittany. Jenny [Morrison] and I spoke last night. And she said to me: ‘You have to think about this as a father first: what would you want to happen if it were our girls?’ Jenny has a way of clarifying things, always has. And so, as I’ve reflected on that overnight, and listened to Brittany, and what she had to say, there are a couple of things here we need to address. First of those is, it shatters me that still in this day and age that a young woman can find herself in the vulnerable situation that she was in.”
Whenever Morrison has any feminine issues that arise, he invokes his wife, Jenny—whether or not he actually speaks to her about it is another matter—and calls up the image of ‘Jen and the girls’, and this was another clear example. But does a male Prime Minister—or any other man—need to have daughters or women in his life to understand how serious the issue of rape is?
Morrison attempts to appeal to the conservative—and religious—approach to traditional Australia family life, where men deal with the ‘male’ issues, and defer to the women in their lives when the more complex issues arrive that they have no hope of understanding: in Morrison’s world, rape and sexual harassment are emotional issues best left behind for women to resolve. It’s an outdated view of the role of women in society and perhaps is reflective of the Liberal and National parties overall—currently, only 14 of the 76 Coalition seats in the House of Representatives are held by women, or 18 per cent, compared to the 47 per cent in the Labor Party.
Politically, the key issue at the moment is: when did Morrison know about the incident? He claims that he first heard about the incident “only a few days ago”, rather than two years ago, but many political analysts and former politicians are now claiming—including former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull—it would almost be inconceivable and ‘not plausible’ for Morrison to be unaware of the incident when it occurred in 2019.
Yet again, it appears the government will be caught out on these important issues but their reactions suggest that the image of an infallible and perfect Prime Minister is a far more important issue to protect, rather than investigating the rape of a woman within its own offices at Parliament House and protecting the reputation of the victim.
Prime ministers should have knowledge of every issue or salient event that occurs within the government they lead. While they might not come across the knowledge directly, the structure of government operations through party whips and key communications advisors would ensure the prime minister of the day would be aware.
And the way that events and information are transferred within Parliament House, it’s highly likely some Labor MPs and journalists in the press gallery would have been aware that an incident had occurred back in March 2019, even if they might not be aware of the full details.
The ABC political journalist, Laura Tingle, suggested that based on her experience within Parliament House over the past few decades, up to around 30 people might have known about the incident at the time. Already, there has been a timeline of who was informed about the rape, which was alleged to have occurred during the early hours of 23 March 2019. There is a record of the office being steam cleaned later on that day; the President of the Senate, Scott Ryan, was informed about the incident on 27 March 2019.
The Speaker of the House, Tony Smith, was informed about the incident on 8 April 2019, two days before Morrison visited the Governor–General to prorogue Parliament and request an general election for 18 May 2019.
If it’s accepted that according to typical experience, up to 30 key people within the government would have known, and Turnbull’s deliberations that he found it difficult to believe Morrison didn’t know about the incident, for all of that time during that campaign where Morrison was involved with performative stunts during the campaign—skolling glasses of beer; riding around in farming tractors; shearing sheep and playing the bingo halls on the south coast of New South Wales—it’s likely Morrison would have been aware that a rape had been committed within 50 metres of his office. Yet for political expediency and the survival of his future as Prime Minister, he chose to do nothing. And it is for this reason that he should resign from his position.
Since he became Prime Minister, Morrison has had the habit of calling upon sports references: his future is akin to the position of former Collingwood Football Club president, Eddie McGuire, who resigned from his position after the release of the ‘Do Better’ report which revealed a cultural and system problem of racism at the club. Whether McGuire was guilty of racism or not, he was representative of a system that needed to change, and he couldn’t be an agent of that change, so he had to resign.
It’s a similar case for Morrison: he oversees a system that despite his words, accepts rape and sexual abuse as an occupational hazard within Parliament House and amid all the calls for cultural change within politics, that will never occur while Morrison remains in office.
There were social media postings from what appeared to be sympathisers of the Liberal Party to suggest that Higgins was drunk and she might have been dressed ‘inappropriately’—the go-to commentary for right-wing extremists and conservative supporters whenever they find their political team in trouble—and it’s a style of commentary which is reflective of the contemporary Liberal Party.
A rape in the office of one of his colleagues doesn’t seem to be an issue that can reveal a human response from Morrison: he saw it as a political problem that had to be removed on the eve of a federal election. It’s a behaviour that demonstrates that he’s not fit to be the Prime Minister of Australia.
In March 2019, time was running out for Morrison: the latest he could have held the federal election was 18 May 2019, and it had to be called by 13 April. If the news of a rape within Parliament House was revealed at this time, it would have completely swamped out the government’s key messages during the campaign, and would have fed directly into the issues that had been peppered the Liberal and National parties over the preceding six months: a Coalition that was sexist and bullied its women MPs into submission.
It’s doubtful whether Morrison and the Coalition could have survived this news during an election campaign and they would have lost the 2019 federal election. Essentially, this is why it was covered up at the time and, needless to say, it’s immoral, unethical and unbecoming of a national government, which is now resembling a mafioso-styled criminal enterprise.
In purely political terms, it’s understandable why a government would do this on the verge of an election campaign but if the political decision was made to engage in cover-up, at the very least, the Liberal Party should have offered as much support as possible to the victim. But they didn’t even have the decency to do this. Sometimes, politics has to transcend the televisual fiction of House of Cards and engage in real-life humanity, and this was one of those moments which was totally missed.
The alleged perpetrator—a Liberal Party staffer and considered one of leading lights of the Young Liberals—was provided with two references to help secure other work as a registered lobbyist and actually returned to Parliament House in the latter part of 2019 as part of his work in a Sydney-based public relations firm. The actions of the Liberal Party—the cover up, the political deflections, the support offered to the perpetrator rather than the victim—show that there is a moral vacuum at the heart of the party, and despite the talk about the links of the Liberal Party and Christian moral and ethical values, there is a great deal more Morrison will need to do if he wants to have any credibility as Prime Minister, and it’s not clear if he is capable of doing this.
In the Parliamentary week when the allegations were first aired, Morrison was clearly rattled in Parliament: these are issues which require empathy and human understanding, and he flounders because it’s against his national inclination to attack and exploit political opportunities whenever they arise.
This was the case after the Christchurch massacre in 2019, when an Australian terrorist murdered 51 people, an incident where he couldn’t go on the attack or score political points against his opponents. He has difficulties dealing with issues that require nuance and empathy—a skill he clearly lacks, given that he required an ‘empathy coach’ at the cost of $190,000 to work out how he could “interact humanely with farmers facing drought”.
While it’s not a sacking offence to mislead the public, Morrison could be forced to resign for misleading Parliament. However, a deception of Parliament is not entirely clear: firstly, it would need to be proved that Morrison did know about the incident in March 2019, and his office will ensure that there is no evidence available that links him at all to the event. Secondly, there would have to be a clear statement made to Parliament that was misleading and, trawling through Hansard shows that he’s been very clever to avoid a direction contradiction.
There will also be a great deal of semantic interpretation to make the public believe that Morrison hasn’t mislead Parliament but, essentially, there will be ongoing political consequences for the Prime Minister. If Morrison did know about the incident in May 2019, it was appalling and disturbing that he didn’t act upon it. If he didn’t know—as he has continually claimed—it shows that there is incompetence within communications at the highest levels within his office, and the offices of his ministers.
Of course, there will be scapegoats and other people way below in the pecking order that will take the fall for the Prime Minister: Linda Reynolds is being primed for resignation, in the same manner Senator Bridget McKenzie was discarded during the infamous sports funding scandal that was revealed during 2020. Lowly Liberal Party staffers or security guards working within Parliament will be held to account, but not the Prime Minister.
The Liberal Party has already shown that it will attempt to resolve—or negate—the issue politically. Morrison used Parliament Question Time to apply sexual assault and sexism across to the Labor Party as well, claiming that the issue was not “confined to any one party in this place”, and the week ended with an open-ended media statement from Liberal Party Senator Sarah Henderson outlining how she had referred an allegation of rape against an unnamed Labor member of Parliament to the federal police, supposedly “in the interests of full transparency”.
There is no indication whether Henderson is referring to a historical case—in 2014, Labor leader at the time, Bill Shorten, revealed he was the subject of an alleged rape in the early 1980s, and no charges were ever laid by Victoria Police, and there have been assumptions made that this recent media statement is the same allegation made against Shorten but regurgitated for political convenience—and the fact Henderson released a media statement shows that far from wishing to change the culture of Parliament, the Liberal Party will continue to look for political solutions to this issue, rather than a social, practical or legal solution.
Henderson’s media statement seemed to be in response to the revelation of yet another rape allegation against a government minister: in this case, an allegation of rape made to NSW Police, detailing an incident from 1988 by a senior member Cabinet before he entered Parliament. The woman who made the allegation took her own life in June 2020 and although there is detailed documentation of the incident lodged with NSW Police, the chances of a conviction are now minimal or non-existent, with the allegations unable to be effectively proven in a Court of law.
It is unclear where this is all heading but the current arrangements of complainants being unable to either lodge their cases easily or have their voices heard is unsatisfactory. The accused also need to be able to defend themselves but the balance is too heavily swayed in the direction of alleged perpetrators and for as long as this system is in place, justice will not be served, and sexual assault, harassment and abuse will continue to occur within Parliament House.
Speaking to the media today, Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has recommended that there has to be another way for these matters to be resolved, through independent inquiries and other legal alternatives, in a way that draws justice for the victims in a way than it has been unable to do so far.
“Such a serious allegation hanging over the head of this government,” said Hanson-Young, “it draws into question the very integrity of government, trust within the ministries, trust within politics. The fact that we haven’t heard a word from the Prime Minister in the last three days, his silence is deafening.”
While the furore was circling Canberra and every media outlet was reporting on sexual violence against women, and the obscene behaviour of entitled men within politics, Morrison was seen at Sydney’s Bronte Beach on Saturday afternoon for a series of media opportunities and family photo snaps that were published widely on social media. It says much about where the priorities of this government are positioned at the moment, with an inclination to believe that sexual assault and abuse of women in politics are issues that will just disappear of their own accord.
This has been a test, not just of Morrison’s character, but of the government he leads. And so far, he has failed dismally.
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