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

Make way for the office turtles: they’re rude, thoughtless and dangerous

What is it about public transport that turns normally reasonable people into inconsiderate sloths? And what is it about crowded city footpaths that has made getting from A to B the pedestrian equivalent of roller derby?

I live in Macedon, on the regional fringes of Melbourne, surrounded by stately gums, an abundance of colourful birdlife and no pushing and shoving. With infrequent cause to visit the Big Smoke when I do chance to visit I rather resemble the country mouse in awe of the unfamiliar surrounds.

It being almost six years since I last worked in the city there is much that is new to take in. Melbourne’s cabs, for example, are no longer universally yellow, as they had been since the 1990s when then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett proclaimed that it must be so. That’s a change for the better; the mandatory yellow was a bit drab.

The former Media House, on the corner of Collins and Spencer streets, which was once my place of work, sits as handsomely as ever, ‘The Age’ masthead still emblazoned across its façade. Media House was originally intended as a monument to Fairfax’s grand plans for the 21st Century. It remains a monument, but to inept management and the demise of what was once one of the world’s great publishing houses.

Media House is situated across the road from Southern Cross Station which, like the rest of the city, is teeming with impatient throngs of humanity. Anyone who makes the mistake of pausing to gather one’s thoughts will find himself gathered up by an unforgiving – and unstopping – heaving organism dressed in track suits and backpacks (more about them later).

The march of the office turtles

I no longer have cause to wear my adored Zegna and Hugo Boss suits, but I weep at what has become of the suit. The new fashion is for jackets, much too tight for my taste, sitting just below the belt line. Millennial fundaments as far as the eye can see. Those who wear ties favour featureless hues but most prefer to go sans which would seem to obviate the necessity for a suit.

While ties are optional, backpacks seem to be de rigueur whatever one’s station. These are my old enemy the office turtles, ferrying goodness knows what on their backs, as they clog city thoroughfares. In the 1970s and 80s, the busy man about town was more likely to carry a “manbag”, in essence purses with wrist-straps. In most cases, these men sported unspeakable perms, thus the office poodle was the precursor of the office turtle. The point of raising this unedifying fashion trend, which died the unlamented death it deserved, is this: what is it that needs to be stored in backpacks the size of filing cabinets where once a man-purse sufficed?

The most annoying office turtles – male and female – are those who insist on wearing their backpacks on crowded trains, oblivious to the discomfort of bare-back passengers. As it is, trains are crowded and clearly not designed for the throngs they must carry, but when half of those passengers are wearing backpacks the trial of the peak-hour commute is magnified many times over.

Despite the cramped conditions, office turtles generally keep their backpacks on, much to the discomfort of whoever happens to be standing behind them. Office turtles behave as if they are the only ones on the train. They are not only a visual blight, but a risk to life and limb.

Inconsiderate office turtles blithely take up the space of two commuters and as they make their way to their desired spot on the train seated passengers will score a backpack-biff to the bonce while those who are standing will be rudely shunted aside by the reinforced office turtle.

The backpack wearers who affect a nod to civility are in the habit of removing their backpacks with furious abandon, in the process knocking hapless commuters off their already unsteady feet. It’s the public transport version of 10-pin bowling.

Unfortunately, the office turtles are not the only trial to be endured on public transport.

Takeaway food-ferals have turned trains into troughs on wheels. No matter how crowded and uncomfortable, there is always someone, any time of the day, filling carriages with the pungent odour of Kentucky Fried Chicken, curries, dips from hell and chips soaked in vinegar. It‘s also fashionable to come on board with cups of takeaway coffee. So if the smells don’t get you, a shower of latte might.

All these travails amount to one sorry fact: commuter travel has become intolerable.

What makes public transport travel to and from work such an ordeal is not so much the overcrowding but the astonishing rudeness and lack of consideration that one daily encounters.

On a city train recently a middle-aged married couple, apparently overseas tourists, lit up cigarettes. The indignant cries of “You can’t smoke on the train!” reverberated throughout the carriage. A group of students tucking into some of the Colonel’s finest watched impassively and without hindrance. The battle is lost.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He has been known to carry a backpack but has never worn one in public. He rants on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

The lesson of the Leigh Sales incident for men: stick to handshakes and you can’t go wrong

ABC presenter Leigh Sales has sparked a media firestorm following her very public expression of revulsion at being kissed on the lips by businessman Phil Newman when he introduced her at a charity ball she was hosting. Sales’ disquiet will be familiar to thousands of women who face unwanted kisses as part of their everyday working lives.

To recap briefly, Newman, having offered his cheek for Sales to peck then turned his head suddenly and planted an unwelcome kiss on her lips. Sales, clearly affronted, according to an account in Guardian Australia, had the presence of mind to make her objection known by declaring “hashtag me too” into her microphone before with admirable aplomb resuming her MC duties at the black tie dinner.

“The only reason I am commenting publicly is that given how many people witnessed the incident, I feel it would be gutless not to stand up and say that kind of behaviour is intolerable and the time for women being subject to it or having to tolerate it is long gone,” she later told Guardian Australia.

“I was offended and angered by the incident on Saturday night. I had strong words to the man involved, he apologised and I accepted that apology. That should be the end of it as far as I’m concerned.”

While it can be safely imagined that Newman is mortified by the experience, the incident is typical of that disturbing brand of male humour that considers the breach of a woman’s dignity to be a harmless jape, thus nullifying the sexual overtones that necessarily underpin the “joke”.

The deception behind Newman’s stolen kiss, and the violation itself, all in full view of 200 people, illustrate the unfair and unacceptable standards of behaviour that women must navigate daily. Choosing Sales for his gambit was just the first of Newman’s miscalculations, but imagine the same scenario with a younger, less confident, less powerful woman in Sales’ place.

Newman’s public humiliation ultimately occurred because it remains the fashion for men to greet women with a peck on the cheek. The lesson for men to be taken from Newman’s faux pas is not to stick to the cheek, but to do away with the peck altogether.

Hazards of the pecking order

Women in the workplace and other professional settings may not have to endure lip-on-lip contact but for most the peck on the cheek is equally something to be endured. They know that one of the hazards of success is being on the receiving end of the power kiss. The higher up the pecking order, the more likely the unwanted pecks.

Imagine being a businesswoman or woman of station about to enter a room in the knowledge that what awaits is a gaggle of men queuing to pucker up in greeting.

This is an issue I first canvassed in a column for the Australian Financial Review in 2011:

“To kiss or not to kiss? That is the question in these fraught times of gender do’s and don’ts. Business etiquette has, by and large, kept pace with shifting norms of behaviour that reflect greater equality between the sexes in workplaces and the corridors of power. But the issue of when, if at all, to greet a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek is unresolved.”

The response I received at the time was that most women don’t like being kissed at business or professional gatherings.

Who can blame them? Every time a woman walks into a crowded room, big boofy blokes will circle to plant a kiss on the cheek. The inevitable slobberthon can’t be pleasant for women.

As the Leigh Sales incident makes clear, many men are still programmed to pucker up the instant a member of the opposite sex enters their midst. For these men, the social distinction is clear: you shake hands with a man, you kiss a woman on the cheek.

Women who don’t like being kissed leave no room for doubt. At gatherings their hands shoot out before anyone has a chance to invade their face. But some women favour the kiss as an appropriate greeting, or at the very least are prepared, reluctantly, to let an outdated practice through to the keeper. And so the custom endures.

Business etiquette, which is generally attentive to changing norms of behaviour in the workplace, seems to have bypassed the power peck. The propriety of greeting a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek remains a grey area. (And don’t get me started on the hug – when did that start?)

Grey areas aren’t helpful when it comes to stomping out undesirable behaviour. Many men work on the assumption that a grey area is as good as a green light when it comes to zeroing in on a female colleague’s cheek.

Women are entitled to be free of manhandling. It would be better for all if clear rules of engagement were established once and for all. The rule can be expressed in one word: don’t.

The Queen has the right idea. When she’s on the job there’s no touching and no kissing. Flowers are optional.

The bottom line should be this: if it’s business, keep your lips to yourself.

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