Any man who adopts a “don’t ask, don’t tell” position on sexual violence against women, as the Prime Minister has done, is an abject moral failure, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape
AT THE TIME OF WRITING, Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to insist that until last week, he had no knowledge of the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins – then Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds’ media advisor – in March 2019 by a senior colleague, also on Reynolds’ staff.
In an otherwise critical piece in The Guardian on Saturday (20 February), journalist Katharine Murphy made this observation:
'Morrison insists that he, personally, didn’t know. The Prime Minister’s denial is unqualified, and it could be right, given bosses in politics don’t always know everything for a bunch of different reasons.'
But in this instance, we are talking about an alleged crime. A serious crime. The crime of rape. So what are the “bunch of different reasons” that explain why Morrison was protected from knowledge of this alleged crime — if indeed he was?
A prime minister should know if a woman in his workplace is the alleged victim of rape. A prime minister should care enough about women other than his wife and daughters to ensure he is informed of any harm inflicted in that space, with a view to prevention at the very least.
Yet, here we are.
How extraordinary that the default position of apparently everyone in this Morrison Government and their advisors is that the Prime Minister must be protected from knowledge of the crime, while women are not protected — either from the crime or its aftermath.
I am aware of the concept of plausible deniability. However, until recent events I had not realised it could be invoked by a prime minister to deny all knowledge of an alleged crime, perpetrated on a woman only metres from his own office.
If I accept that Morrison was not informed of Ms Higgins situation until almost two years later, I want to know why. What is the culture in the Prime Minister’s office that a woman is allegedly raped and – given Ms Higgins’ inebriated condition – left for dead by her attacker, yet the Prime Minister is protected from all knowledge of this?
...In the midst of an election campaign ... are we being asked to believe that nobody briefed [the PM] on a situation that was nothing less than a ticking time bomb for the Liberal Party?
If I do not accept that Morrison was left in blissful ignorance, I have a different question. At least one person in the Prime Minister’s office unquestionably knew. That was Fiona Brown, who was on secondment as Lynda Reynolds’ acting chief of staff at the time and took charge of the situation with Ms Higgins. Brown later returned to the Prime Minister’s office.
Morrison denied anyone in his office knew and when challenged by Labor on the accuracy of his statement replied, in reference to Ms Brown:
“If someone has worked in another office, they have been bound by the issues in that office, particularly when they are working in an office of a sensitive nature in the defence portfolio…The member of staff … was formerly the chief of staff to the minister for defence industry. That knowledge related to her time in that role. Not in her role in my office.”
The alleged rape of Ms Higgins, while of a sensitive nature, had nothing whatsoever to do with the defence portfolio. This is just one of Morrison’s many attempts to avoid the mention of a crime and steer attention towards office protocol instead.
Morrison’s Chief of Staff John Kunkel and his principal private secretary, Yoran Finkelstein, also knew there had been a “serious incident,” though they claim not to have inquired any further into its nature. That makes three people in the PMO who knew something.
Speaker of the House Tony Smith, President of the Senate Scott Ryan and Senator Michaelia Cash were also aware in 2019 of a “serious incident,” and they too, apparently, declined to inform themselves of its nature. What an incurious lot.
Minister Reynolds had informed the Assistant Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police just days after the alleged crime occurred.
My question is, in the midst of an election campaign that Morrison conducted largely by himself, a campaign described as "presidential" in nature, are we being asked to believe that nobody briefed him on a situation that was nothing less than a ticking time bomb for the Liberal Party? At any point, Ms Higgins could have broken her silence and dumped them all well in it. They had no way of knowing she would hold her silence, only an arrogant assumption that they had her under control.
Are we being asked to believe that Morrison’s staff allowed him to campaign without preparing him for a calamity that could derail them at any moment?
A number of other people knew about the “serious incident” apart from politicians and their senior staff. Several security guards witnessed Ms Higgins enter the building with her colleague and noted that he left without her. At least one security guard checked on Ms Higgins through the night, after she’d been left alone, half-naked and unconscious on the couch in Reynolds’ office. The Department of Finance ordered that the Minister’s office be steam cleaned the day after the alleged attack.
Samantha Maiden reported on News.com.au:
The former director of security operations at Parliament House quit his job in the wake of the “tragic” alleged rape of Brittany Higgins after raising concerns over how the matter was handled.
News.com.au understands that Peter Butler, a former sworn New South Wales Special Constable through his work with transit police and in the NSW Sheriff’s office, has raised concerns over the March 23, 2019 incident for years.
A secret parliamentary inquiry into security at Parliament House has spent months canvassing how the alleged rape was handled, receiving confidential submissions from former and current security guards.
Despite the alleged rape being almost common knowledge very soon after it occurred, the Prime Minister claims he did not know anything at all, until last Friday.
Whether you believe he knew or he didn’t, the Prime Minister has catastrophically failed women in general and Ms Higgins in particular. Any man who adopts a “don’t ask, don’t tell” position on sexual violence against women is an abject moral failure.
When he’s the Prime Minister, that failure should end his career.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online here.
Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.
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