The fate of the Morrison government is unlikely to turn on its "management" of the alleged sexual assault in the office of the Minister for Defence, Senator Linda Reynolds, deplorable as that appears to have been. Clever forensic journalists may yet uncover evidence of a ministerial or prime ministerial error or lie as to the timetable of official knowledge of the affair. That may warrant a scalp or two. Likewise, with evidence of cover-up by staffers or officials able to be, but not unequivocally, interpreted as threats. Yet, as ever in a case like this, the whole affair creates a nasty smell and taste serving further to undermine confidence in the Prime Minister and a number of his ministers.
It's not a sex scandal - a case of voluntary but illicit sex on Capital Hill. It's rape allegations - claims about a sexual assault, a crime, which is something quite different. It is of a one with the seeming incapacity of Morrison to appreciate how badly he was misreading the mood about his absence at the height of the bushfires 13 months ago, or later, his decision to delay implementation of a lockdown so that he could go to a football match. Or his indifference to the situation of refugees. With 100 other examples of an apparent inability to appreciate or to share the emotions, perceptions and feelings of others, it shows itself mostly as a lack of empathy or understanding. It is usually followed, once he understands that he has misinterpreted the mood, by some corny distraction designed to make himself seem human again.
This week, for example, he humbly explained a change of approach as having followed a conversation with his wife, who had invited him to contemplate the horror of a similar sexual assault on one of his own two daughters. After doing so, he suddenly "got it". He was appropriately grateful to his wife for keeping him grounded, and was sorry if some of his earlier remarks, prior to his conversion, had seemed insensitive, had seemed to fail to appreciate the ordeal of the woman, or to show her the compassion she deserved.
It was never quite clear where Morrison's state of understanding had been prior to his wife's breaking his fugue. Would he have appreciated the point, for example, had he had sons? Or no children at all? Must one have daughters to appreciate, at a sympathetic and emotional level, the horrors of sexual assault? Were the early cack-handed interventions of other ministers, or senior staffers the result of the same fugue, the same want of appreciation of what had happened to the woman, the same incapacity to feel for her pain and frustration, and feeling that she had not received the help she needed?
Well, not exactly. Most of those involved, including Morrison, were not seeing the "problem" in "that space". If they were thinking of the woman at all, it was of a former staffer who might go rogue on them and cause political embarrassment. They were wondering if she could be shut up. Or should be. Or appeased. If the "problem" could be "contained". Or, if necessary, whether her account could be discredited, whether by direct assault or by informal briefing of an unusually pliant press gallery, susceptible to off-the-record briefings suggesting some secondary motive.
The victim is seen only as a potential problem and source of embarrassment, not as a real person. It's a tactic often employed whenever the government has a potential public relations problem. For Morrison, almost everything is a public relations problem. No one, usually, is more adept than the Prime Minister in playing a straight bat to all inquiries, to misleading, prevaricating, or smart-arsed comments (as with questions about Craig Kelly), or the unilateral declaration that some topic is out of bounds, whether because of its belonging to some Canberra bubble, zone of prime ministerial privacy, or otherwise not of public interest.
If, occasionally, some limited disclosure is necessary, problems can still be delayed, or understanding of them distorted, by consigning them to some far-from-independent inquiry. There's usually an implication that the results of the inquiry will be made available in full. That might help shut down the initial indignation and clamour, but it usually only postpones it. These days, however, reports when produced are often withheld if they say anything at all inconvenient. The Prime Minister's office narrowly frames terms of reference; those conducting inquiries gather minimal facts.
Governments have minor crises to hose down every week. The pandemic and Morrison's own self-serving personality helps him man the hose with particular zeal. Most issues turn on what he has or has not done. Morrison often dismisses criticism saying he won't look back because he has been wholly preoccupied with fighting the pandemic, or delivering economic salvation after it.
He can, and does, belittle issues as being of the past - ancient history, while he is pre-occupied with the future. He can use his parliamentary numbers - close as they are - to shut down debate. His Speaker, Tony Smith, maintains a veneer of complete independence, but looks out for the government's interests in vulnerable areas. Morrison can have the most limited of press conferences, himself choosing who will be allowed to ask questions, and, as often as not, peremptorily ruling out lines of questioning, or follow-up questions.
I have watched 12 prime ministers close up, and several more at a distance, and all have had techniques, including refusing to hold press conferences at all, for avoiding being held to account. But I have never seen, over 50 years, a more slippery customer than Morrison, a person more impossible to pin down, chronically secretive, truculent, and given to marketing verbiage in the thickets of which it is almost impossible to separate the new from the old, the fact from the hope, or the dream from the substance.
Samantha Maiden, from News.com.au, deserves considerable credit for the work she put into establishing and breaking the story last weekend. It is obvious that once she began asking questions that there were minders, and officials, seeking to deflect her inquiries, to minimise their roles, or to deny any want of understanding or support. What is strange is how long it took the government - or its central nervous system - to realise that they had a major problem on their hands, not to be handled with the usual derision and contempt of so many recent scandals. The story had a hold on the imagination, and a call to arms. It was a human story, of human dimension.
It fitted into modern narratives of sexual assault and abuse of power. There was inequality of position, fear that employers would retaliate if one made trouble or became a distraction, and, the fear that calling out an assault might compound the humiliation and add to the psychic as well as the physical wounds involved.
Perhaps we can take ministers at their word that they did not appreciate that sexual assault had been involved. That ignorance, if it was ignorance, might have been added to by the woman's initial decision not to involve the police. But she did not know that police were already involved. Entry into the minister's office had involved a breach of security, particularly on the part of the alleged rapist. This was why he was summarily (and conveniently) dismissed a few days later.
Her intoxicated condition had been noticed when the pair arrived. This worried parliamentary security officers, who entered the rooms on several occasions after the man had left and while the woman was sleeping on a sofa in a state of disarray.
The presiding officers became aware later, and soon, via confidential submissions, so did members of a parliamentary committee. ACT AFP detectives came to the scene, even if reluctant to move to a full investigation until there was a complaint. But they secured some evidence, including closed-circuit camera footage of the entry by the man and the woman into the suite, and the man's departure.
All of this created a paper trail. It may well be that the Prime Minister was not informed - though given Morrison's micro-managing ways, particularly in the shadow of an impending election, it might seem amazing that he would not be.
But, despite the denials, a number of people in his office were aware of the "potential problem". Some because they had moved from the Defence Minister's private office to the Prime Minister's. Some "management" of the risk seems to have occurred, for example in organising a job for the woman in Senator Michaelia Cash's office.
The minders in on the secret were, of course, seeking to protect the government, and in particular the Prime Minister. Perhaps they judged that it was necessary that Morrison be able to deny it if the story emerged. Where they failed Morrison, or Morrison failed himself, was in not realising what dynamite the story would be if the victim publicly complained.
So was it always a disaster-in-waiting? Not necessarily. Heavy as the impact on the victim was, it would have been relatively unimportant had there been a focus on her welfare afterwards. That lack of practical concern, and the incompetence, negligence and mismanagement of the pretend concern was bad and, less importantly, makes the government "look" bad. Just as badly it was all of a one with a prevailing culture - one Morrison has condoned - of strutting and bullying dominant males.
It was always open to senior people in the office to properly investigate the matter, including progressing it even if the victim did not want to make a formal complaint. An unwillingness to proceed to complaint is not uncommon - who would reproach victims given poor conviction rates, the ordeal of trial, and, sometimes, the professionalism, or want of it, of police.
It appears that offers of help and counselling were pro-forma. Neither minister had an office that fostered a sense of inclusiveness and mutual assistance. So far as there were occasional inquiries, these seem to have been more focused on whether she was going to be a problem rather than concern for her welfare.
If she felt abandoned, and likely to put her job at risk unless she shut up, she was probably sensible. From top to bottom, this was not a nurturing environment, and young women, as the record shows, seem to be out of the loop for handsome post-employment contracts, sinecures, boards, appointments and graft. That's for the boys - what modern Morrison government is mostly about.
If you don't ask, you can't tell
About 20 years ago, the phrase "plausible deniability" was in vogue, in part because John Howard denied any knowledge whatever of the fact that boat children at sea had not been thrown overboard. A Senate inquiry dragged from a number of officials, including a then deputy secretary of the prime minister's department, Jane Halton, admissions that they had come to learn that the children overboard story was a furphy. They said they had told ministerial officers, including senior minders in the prime minister's office. None of these, apparently, had thought this something important enough to bring to the prime minister's attention, although he (and his defence minister) were continuing to make statements alleging that refugees had thrown their children overboard so as to force a rescue by the Australian Navy. The prime minister refused to give evidence or to allow any member of his staff, past or present, to appear before the committee.
In 1983, Malcolm Fraser called an election. The Labor Opposition, under Bob Hawke, alleged that budget projections had slipped badly, and that the economy was in far worse shape than Fraser and his treasurer, John Howard, were pretending. They were right. John Stone, then Treasury secretary, realised that the government would be likely to blame Treasury, rather than decisions of ministers, if the facts emerged before the election, or if, afterwards, the incoming government "discovered" a "black hole". Adroitly he produced and sprung upon Howard written advice telling him of the budget blow-out, and its likely dimensions.
Howard was in a bind. He had his own suspicions about a blow-out, but as long as he did not officially know, he could blandly deny it. Stone deprived him of an alibi. He did not want to lie. For the last week of the campaign, he had "reduced visibility" lest someone ambush him and ask him directly about the state of the budget.
Someone had told Howard the truth, in a way he could not deny. It was as if he then decided that no one should ever be seen to tell him the truth again. This was why he worked through the PMO, mostly with oral briefings. There are many records of what went into the PMO. But very few which recorded what the staff chose to tell him. He was, of course, very interested in detail, as Morrison is. But his fingerprints could rarely be found. On occasion indeed, some minders took the fall by accepting personal responsibility for matters that had almost certainly engaged the attention of Howard.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
Successive governments have tried to follow the Howard system, if in ways adapted to the character of the prime minister, and, in several cases, such as Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, the personality of their chiefs of staff. But deniability is the key. Some prime ministers are more practised liars than others. Others can confuse, mislead, distract and prevaricate in such a way that the truth is strangled. Morrison, however, is a special case. It's because he does not seem to recognise any obligation to account. He uses words such as "transparency", but almost everything he does is opaque. He resists any scrutiny - even more does he resist the imposition of systems by which a review reveals how and why money was spent.
With floods, and bushfires, and vaccines, he blandly announces that he has allocated $X billion to this relief project or that, but no actual fund is created, and it is almost impossible to track the spending that has occurred. With his latest wheeze, the giving out of tens of billions to private enterprise with only minimal accounting requirements, and hardly any protections against fraud, Australia has got fairly close to arbitrary government. Most often we cannot know if there is corruption - even though there are strong grounds to suspect it - because of the looseness of arrangements, the close personal involvement of ministers making decisions on frankly political grounds, and the open derision for financial conventions, many of which are constitutional. The weakest High Court in many decades sits alongside regulators and watchdogs stripped of resources, with leaders sometimes seeming to be chosen for timorousness.
Many politicians dismiss concerns saying, in effect, that the public does not care. I do not believe that, but I do think that we need better methods of informing the population about how they are being ripped off. If there is to be a clear sign that citizens care and that they will kick back, it might well be from a general dismay about the alleged ill-treatment and abuse of a young staffer, first at the hands of an individual minder, and, later, by the institution of government itself.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org