Politics tend to attract a certain sort: the crawler, the ambition-filled thrill seeker, the disturbed, and the sociopathic. Along the way, the odd good egg is bound to be found, the seeker of justice who wants to right the world and order it. Go to the capital, change the world as you see fit. At the very least, give it a go.
The Australian capital, Canberra, is a glacial, distant place. It is a fitting statement on how Australians see their politicians: remote, estranged, and needing to do penance. To be elected and serve is an undertaking best performed in a remote place, cocooned or bubbled. In that bubble, lobbyists seek favours from political parties; deals are struck between politicians and mild acts of treachery are performed. There are endless meetings, receptions and indiscretions. There are office budgets, parliamentary outlays and people wishing to lay or be laid.
Such an environment, with its heavy lacings of booze, power and inequality, found itself on the radar of Australians in February. It took a former parliamentary Liberal Party staffer, Britney Higgins, to place it there. Her accusations of rape shook the walls of that cold establishment. It was not only that a crime of gravity was alleged to have happened on March 23, 2019, but how it was facilitated: in the offices of Australia’s then Defence Minister, Senator Linda Reynolds. The accused was a senior party staffer with form, having been accused by five women of sexual assault.
Having initially contacted police, Higgins felt a deep reluctance to press matters further. An election loomed. Having resigned her political job, she recommenced the complaints process with the police. She had also contacted the Prime Minister’s office.
It took a short time for the problem to be reduced to a miniature of procedure and process. The Members of Parliament (Staff) Act had to be reviewed. An independent body was proposed to handle complaints, one outside the control of the Finance Department. Several inquiries were put in train. In terms of appearance, bureaucrats and parliamentarians were getting busy.
The minister in whose office the act is said to have taken place assumed a mock motherly stance. “At the time,” she told her Parliamentary colleagues, “I truly believed that I and my chief of staff were doing everything we could to support that young woman who I had responsibility for.” Weasel words followed, with Senator Reynolds wishing, at the time, “to empower Brittany and let herself determine the course of her own situation, not by me, not by my staff, not by the government as a whole, but by Brittany.” This was reporting sexual violence as Thatcherism: the entrepreneurial, independent individual, not needing support, not requiring assistance. Just a few words of encouragement would do.
But Reynolds did not stop there. In rather unsisterly fashion, she could not resist an ill-tempered remark that did much to scuttle both her sanity and credibility. On Higgins making her allegations public, Reynolds is said to have called her a “lying cow” to her staff, a comment she subsequently retracted.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for his part, denied ever knowing details of any complaint that might have been made by Higgins to his office, despite senior staffers having been in touch with her. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull found it “inconceivable that [the matter] wasn’t well known to at least key members of the prime minister’s staff.” On the morning of February 16, Morrison told journalists that he had spoken to his wife the previous day. “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.” Lacking a wife and daughters might have led to holding a different view; Jenny was evidently guide and compass, helping the Pentecostal prime minister navigate the jungle in the Canberra bubble.
The matter with Higgins was beyond sleaze and sordid indiscretion. Canberra had transformed into a place for predators and prey. It even stretched to suspicions about those within the Morrison government. By the end of February, it came to the attention of the press that a dossier had been circulated outlining allegations that a woman was raped by a member of the cabinet in 1988. Only a select number of political figures received the letter: the Prime Minister, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Labor Senate Leader Penny Wong. To complicate the matter, the person levelling the accusations was dead, having taken her own life last year.
On March 2, the alleged offender promised to end the speculation and come forth the next day. On March 3, it became clear that the means of confession (or denial) would be a press conference, not exactly the ideal forum to try and test evidence of any sort.
The appearance of Christian Porter, Attorney-General and the country’s leading legal officer, was some display. Porter claimed he had become the subject of trial by media, and in the media, he sought exoneration. He was emotional in denial but also stressed caution. In his statement, various details were supplied: a school debating competition held at Sydney University in 1988; the accused, a tender 17 years; the late female accuser, year younger. It was “a happy time.” Nothing in terms of what was alleged took place.
Porter also sought to armour his name against smear and suggestion, arguing that he was a model figure of the law. He had kept quiet, permitting the NSW police to conduct and eventually conclude their investigation. He had been the target of “a whispering campaign” and “subject to the most wild, intense, unrestrained series of accusations I can remember in modern Australian politics.” Had the accusation been put to him before they were printed, he could “have at least been able to say the only thing that I can say, likely the only thing I’m ever going to be able to say, and it’s the truth, and that is that nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened.”
No satisfactory solutions could come out of the Porter affair. Any investigation undertaken would fail to serve the deceased; any such task would invariably cast disfavour upon the accused. In Porter’s view, he would “be asked to disprove something that just didn’t happen 33 years ago. So, if that happens, I couldn’t succeed to disprove something.” Friend and commentator Peter van Onselen fumed that he had “never seen anything like it in Australian politics.” It was lynch mob justice, a “resort to tyranny” in order to topple tyranny. Selected materials from a dossier most had not read were “leaked to selected personnel.” The accusations, when released by a journalist, were never put to Porter.
Lawyers quibbled and bickered. Whether Porter was innocent or not, his continued presence in the Attorney-General’s portfolio risked impairing the office. The Australian Women Lawyers felt that some form of investigation was needed, but “the question remains as to whether the attorney is an appropriately fit and proper person to hold that office.” Lawyer Michael Bradley, who acted for the deceased, explained to the ABC that such matters as the “integrity of his office and his ability to continue to occupy that high public office, given the gravity of the allegation against him” needed “to be cleared up.”
Porter’s supporters sought trial by media of a different sort: casting aspersions on the mental soundness of the accused, known as Kate. This stood in stark contrast to various sympathetic portrayals of Porter’s own state of mind as that of a “shattered man”, unjustly maligned, who needed to take leave.
David Hardaker in Crikey, ran a piece suggesting that the allegations of rape had arisen after Kate consulted a book in 2019 on Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT). The withering implication: the accused had concocted the allegations in a mind disassociated stupor. The article ignored the point that Kate had only read the book long after consulting a therapist versed in Eye Movement Densensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a method originally developed to cope with sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. No matter to Hardaker; all such therapies were the stuff of pseudoscience, the mumbo jumbo of fantasists.
Such a cavalier extrapolation prompted Independent Australia columnist Jennifer Wilson, herself a victim of sexual abuse, to remark that, “The narrative of a mentally unstable woman bringing down a damn fine man with allegations of rape and other sexual offences is a core trope of misogyny.”
An unsettled volcano has exploded. Testimonies are being released, accounts long suppressed aired. At the women’s March 4 Justice rally in Canberra held mid last month, Higgins was there to make an impassioned plea. “We are here today, not because we want to be here, because we have to be here.”
The Prime Minister was left stranded, anachronistic, mocked for not being able to comprehend the seriousness of what was unfolding. But he, as with many of his colleagues, remains part of a political establishment adept at stifling change under the guise of activity while strangling constructive ideas of reform. The one solution he could muster: a cabinet reshuffle. Reynolds has been eased out of Defence to the Disability and Government Services portfolio. Porter has been moved to the Industry, Innovation and Science portfolio. The system may be broken, but it continues to function, the sexual violence frontier very much intact.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org