Politics Opinion

Doubling down against women a conservative political trend

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Bruce Lehrmann (left) and Donald Trump were both accused of sexual assault (Screenshots via YouTube)

What is happening among conservatives in Western Christian countries raises the question of who they see as the enemy.

* CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape 

The answer is that increasingly the enemy walks among them, raises their children, looks after their house, is well educated and is often the main breadwinner.

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison identified her when he made a speech on International Women’s Day in March 2019:

“We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.”

Many of the “others” had already decided that women have forgotten their place and need to be reminded where it is, and if necessary, be reminded in the courtroom. Enter Roe v Wade in the U.S. and Bruce Lehrmann in Australia.

Accused rapist Lehrmann’s barrister Steven Whybrow SC filed a submission last week that proposed the idea “in theory” that if the trial judge decides that Lehrmann did actually have sex with Brittany Higgins in the early hours of Saturday 23 March 2019, the applicant should still be eligible for a handsome defamation payday from Channel Ten and Lisa Wilkinson.

The reason offered within that hypothetical scenario is that an open question remains as to whether Lehrmann could have known whether Higgins could or would have consented. And if she had consented, there was no rape, so the Channel Ten-Wilkinson truth defence falls apart.

From the time Higgins went public about her 2019 rape allegation in February 2021, without naming anyone, Lehrmann was in a position to admit he had sex with her, but claim that it was consensual. Without any witnesses in the ministerial suite it would then have been a “he said, she said” allegation which would likely have favoured Lehrmann with a “not guilty” jury verdict, as most often happens in cases that get to court where the standard of proof to convict is the high bar of “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

But faced with having to explain himself in 2021 after Higgins renewed the rape allegation she made to police in 2019, Lehrmann decided to tell a story that went like this: After leaving a nightclub together in an Uber following a night of drinking at a bar and a nightclub, instead of going straight home, Lehrmann wanted to stop off at Parliament House to make amendments to non-urgent speech notes. Once the pair were admitted to the Minister’s suite by security, Lehrmann lost contact with Higgins. When he finished work on the speech notes, without looking for her whereabouts in the suite or asking how she might get home, he collected his keys and hurriedly left the building alone to return to the apartment where he lived with his girlfriend, whose many calls he had missed.

Higgins had no reason to be at Parliament House that evening other than to wait for Lehrmann to get something from the office. And of the concocted stories Lehrmann gave for not going straight home, the lie he told security about having to pick up files for Minister Linda Reynolds was rivalled only by the account he gave about how difficult it would have been to manage the “process” of getting into his girlfriend’s apartment without his keys, which he claimed he’d left at Parliament House.

Lehrmann implied it was easier to manage the process of getting past security at Parliament House with an elaborate fabrication that implicated a Minister of the Crown in why he was there inebriated with a drunk female companion at 2:00 AM on a Saturday morning.

When this improbable story is compared with the obvious option of admitting he had sex with Higgins, it fits into the context of conservative political figures doubling down when caught doing something they shouldn’t have done. A classic example was shown in evidence given to the Robodebt Royal Commission that Department of Human Services Secretary Renée Leon gave in February 2019 following the Amato decision in the Federal Court which declared Robodebt illegal.

Professor Leon said she proposed to DHS Minister Stuart Robert that he issue a statement of apology to the 400,000 affected people and that the scheme be immediately shut down. In her evidence, she added that the Minister said he would do no such thing, but instead would double down with an insistence that the scheme was legitimate and would continue. Robert changed his tune only when former Attorney General Christian Porter confirmed the position taken by Leon.

Despite being a bad loser, the habitual behaviour adopted by Donald Trump has become the guiding light of recent conservative figures in Australia, particularly Trump admirers such as Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. Along with his international renown as a habitual liar, Trump’s routine response to allegations against him is not simply to question their authenticity but to double down.

For example, the fraud case brought against Trump in New York by District Attorney Letitia James has already found him guilty of inflating his assets by hundreds of millions of dollars, but in awaiting a decision on how much the penalty will be, with $370 million being called for, Trump is still arguing the case that was decided and is now insisting that “they should pay me”.

On matters sexual, Trump has become embroiled in a great number of allegations, one of which is a rape allegation by E Jean Carroll. Carroll stood out because she had the means and the determination to pursue court action against him. At various points in the progress of her case, Trump has doubled down by denying at one stage that he had ever met Carroll and insisting he did not rape her in the changing room of a clothing store in the 1990s.

New York Judge Lewis A Kaplan found Trump was liable in a civil case for sexual assault in the common meaning of the term and defamation, following which Trump made a counterclaim for defamation which he also lost. Carroll sued again for defamation when, in flagrant denial of the court’s decision, Trump insisted in a CNN interview that Carroll is a whack job and he definitely did not rape her. Carroll will be looking at a bigger defamation payout than the initial $5 million awarded in her favour when her latest federal case is heard in New York on 15 January.

If a young, up-and-coming conservative male is trying to establish his credentials as an anti-woke, anti-feminist alpha male in Australian conservative circles, the temptation to emulate his U.S. mentor in the event of a sexual allegation against him would be to promptly double down against the allegation. It is not enough to fiddle around with the allegation at the edges but to contend in a more determined and sweeping way that the accuser is a nutter, that she is not his “type” (a Trump favourite), or that he doesn’t know her and has never met her.

The intended effect of doubling down is to divert attention away from the substance of the allegation by focusing on the unreliability of the female accuser as a liar, a fame-seeker, a gold-digger or a deluded fantasist. It is to deny her existence as a person with standing by characterising her as an irritating phantom.

Trump has tried the same tactic in the case against him for paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign to buy her silence. It’s now well established that Daniels had consensual sex with Trump during a brief affair in 2006, ten years before he campaigned for president in 2016. It happened at the time his wife, Melania, was pregnant with Barron and when he was also conducting a much longer affair with Playboy Bunny, Karen McDougal.

Daniels’ book on the subject, Full Disclosure, sets out in detail the way Trump pursued her, promised her a spot on his television show, The Apprentice, and eventually they had a short consensual affair during which no money changed hands. She was happy to see him off and forget about him, which she did for ten years.

Money came into it in 2016 when her daughter’s life was threatened if she said a word about the 2006 affair. She hired two bodyguards for protection and a lawyer who negotiated with Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, to pay her $130,000 for her silence, a price that Trump thought was cheap and he was happy to pay.

When the Daniels story broke independently in the Wall Street Journal in 2018, Trump went into immediate double down mode as is his custom, denying he had ever met Stormy Daniels and calling her insulting names such as horseface. The hush money case around the violation of campaign finance laws involving Daniels and McDougal is due to be heard in March. Daniels may give evidence.

By the time the Trump cases are due to be heard in the U.S., we will likely have heard in Australia the decision of Federal Court Justice Michael Lee on the Australian defamation case in which the applicant Lehrmann appears to have doubled down, in emulation of his conservative heroes, to invalidate the evidence given to the court by the central female witness Higgins. In passing, Lehrmann arrogantly dismissed as “that stupid speech” the unreserved apology given to Higgins by Prime Minister Morrison in February 2022 for the “terrible things that took place here”, referring to the alleged 2019 rape.

In recent years, the conservative side of politics has lightly dismissed the public concerns of many women among their ranks, among them Julia Banks and Rachelle Miller, and more recently, Bridget Archer. Brittany Higgins was a junior conservative woman who saw what was happening and broke ranks after two years of silence to accuse a male work colleague of rape. She would also have seen the way women such as Christine Holgate and Julia Gillard were treated by conservative men in her workplace and the way the men in the Liberal Party Room quickly dismissed Deputy Leader Julie Bishop in favour of two supremely mediocre men when a spill was on to select a new leader following Malcolm Turnbull’s demise.

Finally, in 2021 Higgins was triggered by seeing powerless women like her used and abused by bullies, harassers and rapists in the Liberal Party she once loved. They may have been young staffers who were groomed by “big swinging dicks” such as Christian Porter and Alan Tudge or anonymous women who were bullied by senior males in ministerial offices, such as that of Ken Wyatt. The repetitive theme is that the female victim is always the problem and the perpetrator is usually a promising man whose star is on the rise.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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