Rape allegations, gross misogyny, stalking and abuse, cover-ups, hiring prostitutes in Parliament House. What other reaction could you have but absolute disgust for the federal government? For six weeks, endless stories about the abuse of women by Liberal and National party staffers and politicians have featured in the news. Whether it’s carrying out the abuse, the attempted denials and cover-ups, the excuses made for the abusers or the dirt jobs on those who report or expose the abuse, the list of the Coalition’s crimes goes on and on.
It started with Brittany Higgins going public with an accusation that a Liberal staffer raped her in the office of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds in 2019. If the government is to be believed (how laughable an idea that now seems), the prime minister, Scott Morrison, was not made aware of the allegation until it hit the press in February this year, despite several of his ministers and their chiefs of staff, the federal police and presumably even the cleaner who was asked to remove the evidence in Reynolds’ office, all knowing within days of the alleged rape.
The staffer accused of raping Higgins was sacked after the incident, supposedly for a security breach, according to the prime minister. But there was no security breach, as has been confirmed by the guard on duty that night. So why was the staffer sacked? Probably because he had been accused of rape! Morrison expects us to believe that he had no knowledge of this—but he was confident enough to use an (entirely made-up) allegation of sexual abuse in the offices of Sky News against a Sky journalist asking awkward questions during a press conference in late March. How utterly despicable.
What else have we learned?
That Morrison can understand the severity of a rape allegation only because his wife explained to him that he had daughters. So another woman’s pain could be understood by him only insofar as it might hypothetically affect the security of his own family.
That Morrison has not investigated allegations that his office has been badmouthing Higgins’ partner to journalists as payback for her going public, despite being asked about it thirteen times in parliament.
That Morrison is prepared to lie to the parliament. The prime minister told MPs that inquiries were being made into who in his office knew about Higgins’ rape allegation—but it turned out that he had already been informed by the chair of the investigative committee, his former chief of staff, that the investigations had been “suspended”, possibly on the advice of police, possibly not.
That Morrison cares far more about the hurt feelings of NewsCorp than he does about women who have made rape allegations—he apologised to the media company less than 24 hours after having levelled his baseless allegation that Sky News was dealing with a sexual abuse case.
That Reynolds told her staff that Higgins, a Liberal loyalist who wanted nothing more than to serve this horrible party, was a “lying cow”. Reynolds apologised, but only after Higgins’ lawyers were brought in.
That Morrison believes women should think themselves lucky that they are not shot for demonstrating outside Parliament House.
And that a senior Liberal, Tasmanian senator and former Abbott and Howard government cabinet minister, Eric Abetz, told state Liberal MP Sue Hickey that “that Higgins girl” was “so disgustingly drunk” that she could have slept with anyone, even a foreign spy, “putting the security of our nation at risk”. Abetz vehemently denies having said this, but who can believe this bastard for one second?
Soon after Higgins’ accusation was made public, several politicians—including PM Morrison, Labor Senator Penny Wong, Liberal MP Celia Hammond and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young—received an anonymous letter outlining a historical rape accusation against a cabinet minister, who it soon transpired was Attorney-General Christian Porter, the most senior law officer in the country.
A dossier of written testimony from the accuser, who committed suicide last year, was given to the government. But did Morrison read it? As if! Why would he? The prime minister simply declared that he had accepted Porter’s assurance that the rape did not happen. But, Morrison said solemnly, he handed the dossier to the police, who were the appropriate authorities. But NSW police had already closed their investigation. When it became clear that no charges would be brought against Porter by federal or state police, Morrison refused to commission an independent inquiry into the matter. Morrison still has not read the dossier. He appears to be as interested in the alleged victim’s claims as he is in the “[email protected]” report on workplace sexual harassment that has been gathering dust on his shelves now for more than a year.
For his part, Porter discovered the legal concept of “the rule of law”, something he has flouted repeatedly in his time as attorney-general when it suited him but which he has now seized on in an attempt to fend off probing questions. Porter then attempted to muzzle the media by launching a defamation action against the ABC.
Porter immediately took several weeks’ medical leave on full pay, but he is far from disgraced. Morrison has stated that he “will continue to play a very important role in my cabinet” on his return. When Sue Hickey inquired about whether Porter was the subject of the dossier, she says that Abetz told her “not to worry, the woman is dead and the law will protect him”.
Then came the case of the four Coalition staffers masturbating on the desk of a federal Liberal woman politician. That turned out to animate Morrison much more than mere charges of rape. While Morrison has done his best to bury Higgins’ allegation of rape at the hands of a Liberal staffer, he said of the masturbation incident: “I am shocked and I am disgusted”. One of the offending staffers was immediately sacked, and disciplinary action will be taken against the others.
And then there is the case of Andrew Laming, Queensland LNP member for the federal seat of Bowman. Laming is accused of relentlessly bullying two of his female constituents, driving one of them to the brink of suicide. Laming’s behaviour included hiding in a bush to take photographs of one of the women. He will not recontest the next election—but the government refuses to demand his resignation or his expulsion from the party because that would remove the Coalition’s majority in parliament, which is far more important to Morrison than any notion of women’s rights.
One of the most obvious features of the scandals involving Coalition politicians is that they face few sanctions for their sexist and abusive behaviour. The federal National Party leader, Deputy PM Michael McCormack, demonstrated the seriousness with which his party treats the matter when he told the press on 27 March of his plans to hold a meeting of his federal colleagues, for “an hour or so”, in which they could listen to an “expert in the field” outline appropriate and inappropriate behaviour towards women. Jeez, that will make all the difference.
Morrison has made much of how he has learned about the sexism women face in everyday life. But he cannot keep up the charade for long. Every time he is subjected to anything more than the Dorothy Dixers he is used to from the press gallery and colleagues, he starts to snarl and lash out, attacking those asking the question, slinging mud or even playing the victim himself. There’s a reason for this, as Katherine Murphy of the Guardian recently explained:
“This prime minister speaks almost exclusively to one cohort of voters: men at risk of voting Labor ... If you are a swinging male voter, you won’t notice this phenomenon, because you bask in the warm glow of Morrison’s undivided attention.
“But if you are not in this category, you might spend a period of time feeling excluded by the prime minister’s presentation and messaging before it dawns on you that you feel excluded because he’s not talking to you. Eventually it dawns on you that he’s never talking to you, even when words are coming out of his mouth and he’s making eye contact down the barrel of a TV camera.”
Morrison has always been a grubby political operator. But he’s managed to convey a sense of competence because of the appalling parliamentary press gallery, which mostly seems interested, like the politicians themselves, in intrigue and whether or not something is a “good strategy” or a “bad strategy”, rather than whether it is laudable or criminal. It seems that now, finally, this series of scandalous, horrific events might finally have shifted the mood.
It’s about time. And it’s about time that the Coalition government—this smug, arrogant protection racket; these lying, sexist scum—was brought down.