A culture of cover-ups and victim-blaming is on full display in all its proudly backward glory as the Morrison Government responds to Brittany Higgins' rape allegations, writes managing editor Michelle Pini.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape
IN THE LIBERAL PARTY – the party of the status quo – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
This week, as another scandal unfolded, the Liberal Party’s “don’t ask, don’t tell“ approach towards women, in all its proudly backward glory, was once again on full display.
This time, allegations emerged that a Liberal Party staffer, Brittany Higgins, was raped in Parliament House on the (since steam-cleaned) couch, in the office of the then Defence Industry Minister, Linda Reynolds.
This location is significant not only because the alleged sexual predator chose such a brazen location but because of the security footage, which may or may not confirm the incident and, of course, his identity.
Such CCTV footage of the two-year-old crime would likely have been viewed by parliamentary security officers, by staff from the Office of the Prime Minister – including senior adviser to the PM, Fiona Brown – and, probably, by Reynolds herself. We know this because the incident was apparently handled as a “security breach” at the time.
The plot thickens. This security footage has since been withheld, not only from the victim but from the Australian Federal Police.
How lucky then, that since the PM is determined to have us believe he knew nothing about an alleged criminal offence – one that occurred under his watch and about which his office was clearly consulted – both the ministers who were definitely in the know happen to be female: Reynolds and Senator Michaelia Cash, who was also later told about the incident.
This means that in true Liberal Party tradition (think "sports rorts") they will likely bear the brunt of the negative publicity should the ruse finally be up. We know this to be the Prime Minister’s go-to position. Deny any knowledge about anything that may prove incriminating, or, that may indicate incompetence and then find a suitable scapegoat – preferably female – to throw under the bus, or random items of furniture, such as the couch, in this case.
And, if you can’t manage to feign any actual empathy, it also helps to show you at least know a woman who may have empathy.
This was the PM’s approach this week as he told the media he had “listened to Brittany” and then followed with:
“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, always has.”
How good is Jen?! Why else would the Prime Minister manage to feel anything at all, least of all about a female victim of a violent crime? Scotty even managed shiny eyes, no doubt brought on by the startling realisation of his own lack of compassion.
Of course, this is hardly unchartered territory for the PM or his Government. Just a few short months ago, Four Corners revealed allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of senior Liberal Party ministers, Alan Tudge and Christian Porter.
At the time – as Senator Ann Ruston was asked if the culture towards women had improved within the Liberal Party –Morrison expertly talked over the pretty little lady, denied any wrongdoing on the part of Porter and Tudge, refused an inquiry and promptly buried the whole "regrettable" incident with:
“These things happen in Australia. People do things and they regret them, they do tremendous damage to their lives in the lives of many others, and I know there would be deep regrets about that.”
And then there’s the Liberal Party enablers: the women themselves.
Women such as Linda Reynolds, who knew and chose to ignore, to intimidate – even going as far as interviewing the victim in the room where the alleged attack took place) and to cover up – transferring Higgins to her WA electoral office, out of view.
Women such as Michaelia Cash, who knew and essentially said, suck it up or find another career.
And women such as Julie Bishop. Probably the greatest example thus far of a female Liberal Party success story – Bishop chose to wait until she was safe and secure behind the cushy enclave of her post-parliamentary position before making her “shock” revelations about misogyny being alive and well within the ranks of her party. Who knew?
After all that dirty misogynistic laundry, one would think Morrison may have at least perfected the art of appearing empathetic by now.
Nonetheless, no sooner had the PM delivered his teary and completely insignificant statement about Brittany Higgins' ordeal when he began to change the narrative. As the tide of welling tears seemed only to lead to further scepticism, Morrison quickly switched to plan B: cast doubt on the victim’s story and find someone to toss under the fragrant aroma of the sanitised couch.
One can hardly be expected to keep borrowed empathy going indefinitely, and a whole day passed, after all, before the PM changed course. He raised concerns about the veracity of Brittany Higgins' contention that she was contacted by a senior member of his staff after the Four Corners report.
According to Daniel McCulloch in the West Australian:
'Asked about this telephone call, Mr Morrison questioned Higgins' memory of events.
"That is not the recollection of the records of my staff on that matter – it's just not – so I can't really speak more to it than that... I understand that over time, particularly in situations like this, that information can become confused over time about who makes contact and things like that. I accept that, I make no judgments about that."'
And, of course, Reynolds also came in handy, as the AFR's Phil Coorey reported:
'Scott Morrison publicly admonished Defence Minister Linda Reynolds for failing to tell him about a staffer being allegedly raped in the Minister’s Parliament House office almost two years ago, saying it was unacceptable he was kept in the dark.'
In the Liberal Party – the party of the status quo – the more things change, the more they stay the same: safely stuffed under steam-cleaned rugs and couches.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
This is an abridged version of an editorial originally published as part of the Independent Australia weekly newsletter. You may read the full version of this article online in the IA members-only area.