Sexual assault in minister’s suite: just another day at the prime minister’s office

Scott Morrison approaches politics like the medicine-show spruikers of old. The key to survival for those wily peddlers of miracle elixirs was to keep moving, staying one step ahead of outraged villagers, going on to transfix the gullible of some other unsuspecting locale with their bogus claims, half-truths and practised patter.

For the very best of these charlatans, such was their mesmerising charm, so fickle were their audiences, that even the angriest and most cynical denizens were willing to forgive and forget the next time the medicine-show caravan showed up.

That was the secret to the longevity of the medicine-show flim-flam men: just keep moving.

Scott Morrison has made a career of moving on, whether it’s flitting from one job to another, leaving behind him a detritus of failure and unmet expectations, or as prime minister, mastering the art of deflection, denial and distraction. Morrison routinely resorts to denunciation to silence or mock critics. He uses announcements, slogans and photo ops to beguile his audiences. With breathtaking opportunism he adjusts his persona to suit the occasion or objective and he is without shame in his resort to homespun platitudes, clichés and cant when called on to demonstrate empathy.

Morrison is a salesman of the showman variety. He is a marketing man who believes it’s all about the sizzle. It has defined his working life and it has certainly defined his prime ministership.

And he has been getting away with it, much to the apoplectic rage of his detractors who cannot understand how his flim-flammery is overlooked, and worse, rewarded. The Morrison government is the most scandal-prone federal government since the Whitlam government, but without its vision or achievements.

It’s unlikely that most Australians – diehard Liberals aside – can’t see through Scott Morrison. The true puzzle is why they are so willing to excuse his inauthenticity and dissembling.

But as our American friends would say, the jig may be up for Scott Morrison.

Text-book Morrison

And the catalyst is the harrowing and damning story of Brittany Higgins, the young Liberal party ministerial staffer who alleges that in March 2019 she was raped by a senior colleague on the couch of a minister’s Parliament House office – the office of their employer, the then-minister for Defence Industry Linda Reynolds, who is now Defence minister. Higgins was 24 at the time.

The PM’s initial response was text-book Morrison when he explained at a press conference:

“Jenny 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.”

There is nothing untoward about government leaders privately discussing matters of moment with their spouses and even to be influenced or guided by those discussions.

But was it really necessary to publicly frame his empathy in the context of his fireside chat with Jenny or to explain his understanding of the horror endured by Brittany Higgins by referencing the fact that he has daughters?

Kudos to 10 News political reporter Tegan George who took Morrison to task at that press conference: “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? What happens if men don’t have a wife and children?”

In typical fashion, Morrison batted away the reporter’s question with “I can’t follow the question you’re putting”.

Morrison’s concerned-father shtick – not the first time it has been employed by Morrison – was part homily but also a calculated gambit to place himself above the fray of a political shitstorm about to engulf his government.

At the heart of that approaching maelstrom was whether Scott Morrison’s office – and indeed Morrison himself – was aware of the alleged rape of two years ago. Until Brittany Higgins publicly revealed the alleged assault nothing had been done about it, ostensibly because the incident was a closely guarded secret and that Ms Higgins herself had opted not to pursue her initial complaint to the Australian Federal Police.

‘Wake-up call’

To the extent that the incident was “handled” it was done so atrociously. Ms Higgins recalls that in a meeting with Reynolds – conducted in the very room in which the alleged assault took place – the “options” available to Ms Higgins were discussed. The upshot of that meeting was that Ms Higgins felt that she was forced to choose between pursuing her complaint to police or keeping her “dream job” of just a few weeks. She chose the latter.

Reynolds has apologised for her mishandling of her employee’s complaint, noting that she was not aware that the meeting had taken place in the room that was the scene of the alleged crime.

Following the disclosure of the alleged assault in February, Morrison told a Coalition party-room meeting that this was a “wake-up call” about the treatment of women in federal parliament.

This was a hollow declaration. The toxic environment that women staffers have to endure in Parliament House was well known. It occasioned the introduction of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s 2018 “bonk ban”, an edict banning ministers from having sexual relationships with staffers following then-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s affair with media adviser Vikki Campion.

More recently, in November 2020, ABC TV’s Four Corners program revealed allegations of inappropriate conduct involving staff members by ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge. At the time, Morrison was apparently not moved to consult with Jenny about his response. Morrison chose not to discipline Porter and Tudge because the program canvassed behaviour that took place during Turnbull’s prime ministership. But neither did the ABC’s revelations constitute a “wake up call” to warrant a review of the prevailing culture at Parliament House. Far from it. Communications minister Paul Fletcher sent ABC chair Ita Buttrose a “please explain” letter so affronted was he by the intrusions into the “personal lives” of his ministerial colleagues.

The secret everyone knew

The assertion that it took Brittany Higgins’ revelations to provide the wake-up call is disingenuous. Morrison claims he was “advised” by his office that it only became aware of the Higgins allegations on Friday 12 February and that he was not informed until the following Monday. (No point spoiling the hard-working PM’s weekend over such trifles.)

The idea that the Prime Minister’s Office would be kept in the dark about such an incident is laughable.

It especially enters the realm of the inconceivable given that there was a Department of Parliamentary Services internal inquiry in the immediate aftermath of the incident following concerns expressed by security guards, an inquiry Speaker Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan were aware of, as reportedly were several Coalition and Labor senators.

We also know that a flurry of texts from as early as April 2019 have come to light indicating that members of the PMO were aware of the incident.

Ms Higgins has also claimed that Morrison’s principal private secretary contacted her to “check in” around the time of the Four Corners program, a claim which has been denied.

Morrison claims to be mystified by claims that his office had long known of the incident contrary to their advice that they only recently became aware. He has instituted a Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet review to “test that advice”.

Political apparatchiks being what they are they will gladly take a bullet for their PM and wear it as a badge of honour. Scott Morrison may be personally in the clear when it comes to his knowledge of the alleged rape, but this is only made possible by a culture of “plausible deniability” that keeps the boss ignorant of details while minions beaver away at resolving potentially damaging problems.

The evidence that is emerging is that the PMO treated the alleged rape of Ms Higgins as a political problem to be managed, not as yet another instance of the corrosive working culture for women at Parliament House.

A second woman, a former Liberal staffer, who has come forward to allege she was sexually assaulted late last year by the same former Morrison government adviser accused of raping Brittany Higgins condemned the government’s inaction in 2019.

“If this had been properly dealt with by the government in 2019 this would not have happened to me,’’ she said.

Morrison must ultimately bear responsibility for a cold-hearted culture within his office that reduces rape to a political problem. Clearly Morrison’s self-proclaimed humanity has not rubbed off on his advisers.

We now have four inquires under way or promised: into the prime minister’s office, into the process of making workplace complaints at Parliament House, into complaints handling processes within the Coalition and an independent review of the workplace culture at Parliament House.

Whether those inquiries will amount to anything while Scott Morrison remains prime minister is another matter. More than likely the caravan will simply move on.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher