The ongoing ‘man problem’ is continuing for the federal government and there’s a familiar face the keeps popping up whenever there’s an allegation of untoward and unwanted sexualised behavior and harassment of women. The Attorney–General, Christian Porter, is in a great deal of political trouble, with allegations of a sexual assault from 1988, when he was 17 years of age. Both Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have claimed they haven’t read the details of the allegations documented within a 30-page dossier prepared by the complainant—it’s unclear whether this is based on legal or political advice—even though Morrison received a copy of the dossier last week.
But even though he claimed he hadn’t read the allegations, that didn’t stop Morrison making his own allegation that the Attorney–General was innocent—or from Porter denying his guilt in the matter. It’s not clear how people can defend allegations made against them, if they don’t even know what those allegations are, but denying the unknown seems to be taking interpretations of the law to a new level. Morrison is fully supporting his man, but this is in contrast to comments he made during the 2019 federal election campaign:
Scott Morrison: It’s deeply distressing: we had one of the early questions on rape and women being raped and the lack of reporting. And one of the things that often happens with [rape] is they’re not believed and their stories are not believed and it’s important that their stories are believed and they know that if they come forward their stories will be believed. Women in those circumstances should have a greater sense of confidence that if they tell their stories they will be believed.
While these are important words, Morrison used the statement to contrast himself with the Labor leader at the time, Bill Shorten, who was himself under a cloud of a rape allegation from an incident in the 1980s. Morrison was trying to score political points during an election campaign, whereas now, he’s a great defender of the alleged perpetrator, rather than a believer of the words of the complainant. In 2019, he was a believer: in 2021, Morrison is a denialist and trying to wrap himself up in legalese.
Here is Morrison speaking about the ‘rule of law’ at the recent International Women’s Day breakfast event in Canberra:
Scott Morrison: To see when the rule of law does not operate in a country, and it is not respected, and its processes, and those who are authorised and have the authority and the experience and the ability and the training, to deal with these sorts of issues; where that isn’t present, those who suffer most are women. We must, in this country, understand that one of the key protections for women against the disrespect of women in this country, is the rule of law—there is no substitute for it. There is no alternative justice system; there is no alternative law enforcement system; there is only one, and we must redouble our efforts to make sure it as effective as possible.
All of these issues that related to the rights for women to live in society and be protected against sexual assaults and to be believed when rape and sexual assaults occur—as Morrison himself said back in 2019—and the ‘rule of law’, seem to apply to everyone in Australia, except for members of Morrison’s government. Porter is on mental health leave until 31 March but it’s clear his position as Attorney–General and as the representative for the seat of Pearce, is untenable: although Morrison will try to hold on to Porter for as long as possible, it’s probably time for him to leave public life altogether.
Brittany Higgins at the March 4 Justice protest in Canberra.
In the Irish Parliament in 1982, the Attorney–General Patrick Connolly was forced to resign from his position after a friend, Malcolm MacArthur had been a house guest of Connolly, and was arrested for a horrific double murder. Connolly had no knowledge of the event, and was not implicated in the crime at all, nor did he know that he was harbouring an assassin, but was forced to resign anyway, and never served in government again. The event was described by the Irish Prime Minister, Charles Haughey, as “a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance”, yet it wasn’t enough to save Connolly. Purely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was forced to resign, and Westminster principles dictate that this should be the likely outcome for Porter as well.
The office of Attorney–General is never bigger than the person who occupies the position. Connolly resigned because the incident, even though it was out of his control, didn’t accord to the notion of what the Attorney–General should be: one that is untarnished and beyond reproach. And it’s the same issue for Porter—he is not greater than the office itself, which has housed some of the best legal minds in Australian history: Alfred Deakin; Isaac Isaacs; Robert Menzies; John Latham; Garfield Barwick; Lionel Murphy. Porter, however, is not one of these.
He should be standing aside while a full, fearless and independent inquiry establishes whether he is a fit and proper person to hold the position of Attorney–General and, if an inquiry establishes that this is the case, he can return to office. If there is any doubt of his probity, or his fitness of character, he will have no credibility and his career will be over.
Morrison did suggest women have to be believed when making allegations of rape—as he conveniently pointed out during an election campaign, and when the allegations of a sexual assault in Parliament House were recently revealed—but when the first test arrived to put those words into action, he failed miserably: Morrison listened to the man, and not the woman.
He hid behind ‘the rule of law’ to rule out an inquiry, and that become the federal government’s talking point of the week, and the presumption of innocence which, of course, is the fundamental part of the Australian legal system. But there also needs to be the presumption of justice as well, and not only for justice be applied, but for it to be seen to be done and neither of these have been applied for the complainant.
If there are allegations made against a person in virtually any other profession, for example, teacher, company executive, public servant, police officer; they stand aside while investigations are made. Why should it be any different for the Attorney–General?
So far, the responses from the federal government have been political and, on some level, that’s understandable: that’s what politicians do—they attempt to resolve matters politically. But this is an issue that needs to go beyond the political and offer a resolution with dignity and a human face. The complainant who made the allegations against Porter died in June 2020: her testimony was not recorded by police and it will be impossible to test the allegations legally.
But an independent inquiry could be different and offer some solace to the complainant’s family and friends, as well as providing an opportunity for Porter to clear his name: testimonies from people who were within the orbit of the complainant’s life during 1988, when the alleged incident occurred. Phone records could be used to indicate whether there was any contact between Porter, and the complainant and her friends and family, from June 2020 in reverse chronology.
And an inquiry could also determine whether there was any contact between NSW Police in Sydney’s King Cross—where the 1988 incident was reported in 2019—and the federal government or, indeed, Porter himself. There is a great deal that an independent inquiry can investigate, if the political will is there. But the political will isn’t there and, more than likely, never will be for as long as Morrison remains as Prime Minister.
There is already much material about Porter and his sexist behaviours and womanising activities from his campus days at the University of Western Australia, as well as his behaviour as a parliamentarian, as documented on the ABC’s Four Corners episode in 2020. Porter was already on borrowed time, once the reports of his behaviour were made public, and with this new round of allegations, it’s difficult to see how he will be able to survive, politically.
Parliament is now feeling like an episode of House of Cards, with all kinds of subterfuge and behaviour that is now verging on the edge of criminality, but former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull—who also received a letter from the complainant containing the allegations against Porter in 2019—entered the fray where he suggested at the recent Adelaide Writers Week, there were questions in his own mind about death of the complainant.
“All I know is that she is dead,” Turnbull said. “It certainly has been reported in the media as a suicide. I have a question mark in my own mind about the timing of it because it seems counter intuitive … and then, in 2020, just as she was about to sign the final witness statement … she takes her own life… Now it’s said that she suicided. Did she?”
Turnbull would be unlikely to make rash comments and it’s unclear why he decided to discuss the matter in such a public forum. Was he being politically mischievous? Or wishing to correct a public record? It’s difficult to follow Turnbull’s intentions, but he is yet another former political leader who has called for a full coronial inquiry and political investigation into the matter.
While Turnbull’s actions are unclear, it’s evident that Morrison’s words and responses have been inadequate. Grace Tame is the current Australian of the Year and a survivor, and was forthright about her feelings about Morrison’s behaviour at a recent National Press Club address in Canberra:
Naveen Razik (SBS journalist): When the Prime Minister responded to these first set of allegations, he used the phrase “as a father”, and he said he would have a chat with his wife, Jenny, before he was able to front the media and speak. What do you make of that and what do you make of the rhetoric and the way he’s handled those allegations?
Grace Tame: It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience …and, actually, on top of that …having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.
Criticisms of Morrison and his reactions to the culture of misogyny within his own political party, and of sexual assault of women in society, are becoming more strident within the media and more journalists are calling him out for his hopelessly inadequate responses. So far on these issues, Morrison has been all words and no action, trying to gain media and photo opportunities to massage the messaging that he really is the good guy in all of this who’s trying to do the right thing.
Words do matter, as does the choice of words, but actions speak louder than any meaningless word salad combination thrown at an audience, in the hope that this will be enough and, as a result, it’s time to move on. But it’s not the time to move on: Morrison hasn’t proposed any legislative reform on sexual assaults and violence against women.
He hasn’t announced any new programs or policies. He hasn’t proposed a new code of conduct for parliamentarians or how to reform the Liberal Party to ensure sexual abuse and harassment is no longer covered up. He denied the need for an inquiry over the allegations against Porter and into the death of the woman who has made the allegations. Standing up at a podium and talking about the issue isn’t going to change very much at all, unless it’s followed up with actions.
March 4 Justice
The March 4 Justice campaign was quickly developed and resulted in a series of marches all across Australia on 15 March, with one major event held in Perth the day before, on 14 March. If Morrison is so keen on inaction and filling up space with meaningless words and photo opportunities, then other people will start to fill in the space and thousands of women—and men—protested to show their dissatisfaction with Morrison’s lack of action.
In Canberra, Morrison wanted to meet with a small delegation of women from March 4 Justice, in private and behind the closed doors of his offices—just metres away from where Brittany Higgins was sexually assaulted in the office of the Minister of Defence—so he could primarily control the narrative, control the media responses and, in line with most of his behaviour in public life, misrepresent the meeting, deny whatever was said and push forward his own agenda.
Morrison is a Prime Minister who is untrustworthy and will say and do whatever he needs to do to protect his public image and his office. Morrison’s demands to meet with a small delegation was denied, and he failed to take the opportunity to address the crowd of over 6,000 protesters—opportunities former Prime Ministers John Howard, Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam and Robert Menzies have accepted in the past: that’s what prime ministers are supposed to do.
For reasons that are totally unknown, and displaying a complete lack of awareness of the situation, Morrison decided to make a link between the protests and the military junta in Myanmar, telling Parliament that “this is a vibrant liberal democracy… not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets – but not here in this country …this is a triumph of democracy when we see these things take place.” It’s unclear who advised Morrison to extrapolate in this way, or whether he ad-libbed on his own accord but it’s hard to imagine commentary so far out of tune with the zeitgeist of the times.
That was until Minister of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, managed to provide the most tone-deaf moment of all. The Labor leader Anthony Albanese proposed a motion in Parliament calling for an independent inquiry into the sexual assault allegations against the Attorney–General and a full explanation of reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins in the Defence Minister’s office in March 2019. Albanese spoke for three minutes, but Dutton rose to the dispatch box, and closed down the debate by using the eight most commonly used words by the federal government in Parliament: “I move the Member be no longer heard”.
And that was the end of the debate.
If the Morrison government is defeated at the next federal election, 15 March 2021 will be seen as the turning point in its fortunes. For a government to effectively address a sexual assault that took place within Parliament House, and allegations of rape made against the Attorney–General—the highest law officer in Australia—it had to do more than offer empty words and try to market itself out of a difficult issue that needed a human response and empathy, rather than a political response that sent Morrison into a moral and political cul-de-sac that he had no way of escaping. The latest Newspoll, released on the day of the March 4 Justice events, shows the government has slipped in opinion polling, and is now registering 48 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, to Labor’s 52 per cent.
Also on the same day as the March 4 Justice events, Porter announced legal proceedings against the ABC and the journalist Louise Milligan for broadcasting the Four Corners report that he claims defamed him, even though it never mentioned his name—yes, it is possible to do this even if a name isn’t mentioned but the chances of legal success are much lower. He also announced that when he returns to work as Attorney–General on 31 March—if he is allowed to do so—he will allocate some of his responsibilities to other ministers, so he can adequately prepare for his defamation case.
An Attorney–General on a reduced workload so he can prepare a defamation case against the national broadcaster, in an attempt to clear his name of allegations of sexual assault. A Prime Minister who suggests that the best hope protestors have for calling for action to protect women throughout Australian society, is that they won’t have bullets flying in their faces from the military or the Australian Federal Police.
This isn’t meant to be a political crime thriller on television, or replicating a Central American tinpot dictatorship from the 1980s but it’s starting to feel like it: Morrison and Porter will come to regret their ill-informed actions and comments, and this could also signify the point where there is no return for both the Prime Minister and the Attorney–General.