How Prime Minister Scott Morrison ‘feels’ the pain of others. For him, almost everything is a public relations problem.
The fate of the Morrison government is unlikely to turn on its “management” of the alleged sexual assault in the office of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, deplorable as that appears to have been. 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 the whole affair creates a nasty smell that further undermines 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 an alleged rape case – an alleged crime, which is 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 his decision to delay a lockdown 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 had seemed insensitive, had not shown the woman 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 suggesting some secondary motive, perhaps, some obsession or irrationality that had led the government, reluctantly, to decide to dispense with her.
When the victim is seen only as a source of embarrassment, not as a 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 some limited disclosure is necessary, problems can still be delayed, or understanding of them distorted, by consigning them to some far-off inquiry. That helps shut down the indignation and clamour, but usually only postpones it. These days, however, reports are often withheld if they say anything 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 self-serving personality helps him hold 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.
He belittles issues as being of the past. He can use his parliamentary numbers — close as they are — to shut down debate. His Speaker, Tony Smith, maintains a veneer of independence, but looks out for the government’s interests in vulnerable areas. Morrison can have the most limited of press conferences, 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, to avoid 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 which it is almost impossible to separate the new from the old, the fact from the hope, or the dream from the substance.
I have never seen, over 50 years, a more slippery customer than Morrison
Samantha Maiden, from News.com, deserves considerable credit for her work in breaking the story last weekend. It is obvious that once she began asking questions that minders, and officials, were 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 they had a major problem on their hands, not to be handled with the usual derision and contempt. 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. Inequality of position, fear that employers would retaliate if one made trouble and the fear that calling out an assault might compound the humiliation and add to the psychic as well as the physical wounds.
Perhaps we can take ministers (below the prime minister) 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. They formed the view that a sexual assault had occurred — indeed that the room was a “crime scene” that should have been preserved for forensic examination. Some immediately thought the actions of others –minders and officers of the parliamentary services department — were focused on cover-up.
Whether or not these perceptions were right (a subsequent inquiry by former Inspector General of Security Vivienne Thom could not sustain them) their disquiet had a host of repercussions, most unknown to the victim. The presiding officers became aware, 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. But there are also emails between minders, seemingly focused on whether she would keep her mouth shut. 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. When it became known that the ABC Four Corners program was snooping around sexual indiscretion at the higher levels of government, a check was made to be sure she was not telling tales.
The minders in on the secret were, of course, seeking to protect the government, and, in particular the prime minister. Where they failed Morrison, or Morrison failed himself, was in not realising what dynamite the story would be if the victim publicly complained.
Was it always a disaster-in-waiting? Not necessarily – 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 bullying dominant males.
It was always open to senior people in the office to properly investigate, 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 were pro-forma. Neither minister had an office that fostered a sense of inclusiveness and mutual assistance. The occasional inquiries 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 sensibly realistic. 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.