On any commonsense interpretation of language, Scott Morrison’s comments in parliament last Thursday deliberately concealed the full truth.
The harsher view is they were downright misleading.
Moreover, the prime minister then resorted to a tactical ploy that flies in the face of any claim the government is dealing with the Brittany Higgins matter with respect.
The cynicism displayed is appalling. Surely when the political workshopping was going on in the Prime Minister’s Office – assuming it happened – someone asked, “Is this a good idea”?
Or have they all lost any compass for what is appropriate parliamentary behaviour? Or any notion the public deserve some frankness?
Consider the sequence of words and actions concerning the inquiry into who knew what when in the Morrison office about the allegation by Higgins she was raped by a colleague in a ministerial office in 2019.
This inquiry was being undertaken by the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, Phil Gaetjens.
Asked last Thursday why the report was taking so long, Morrison told the House: “this work is being done by the secretary of my department. It’s being done at arm’s length from me. […]
"He has not provided me with a further update about when I might expect that report, but I have no doubt the opposition will be able to ask questions of him in Senate estimates next week.”
Fast forward to Monday’s Senate estimates.
Gaetjens revealed the work is no longer “being undertaken”. He had in fact “paused” his inquiry nearly a fortnight ago, and had immediately told the Prime Minister.
Gaetjens said that on March 9 the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Reece Kershaw, had told him “it would be strongly advisable to hold off finalising the records of interviews with staff until the AFP could clarify whether the criminal investigation into Ms Higgins’ sexual assault allegations may traverse any issues covered by the administrative process I was undertaking”.
That same day Gaetjens emailed the Prime Minister’s Office staff “to tell them that I would be not completing the documentation.”
“At that same time, I also told the Prime Minister of that, just in case his staff asked him any questions as to what was going on.”
This was all very cosy.
Morrison did not have the same regard for parliament as Gaetjens had for the PM’s staff. He did not tell the House or the public “what was going on”.
Indeed, he had Gaetjens appear before Senate estimates – which is highly unusual for a secretary of the prime minister’s department - to deliver, in effect, an “up yours” to the senators.
Gaetjens stonewalled about the inquiry – for which there is now no end date – although he did say he had not interviewed Higgins. His explanation – he was respecting her request for privacy – doesn’t wash.
We don’t know how far Gaetjens got with his investigation before he paused it. We do know he had quite a while prior to March 9 to make progress, because the inquiry was announced mid-February.
On any reasonable work speed, it should have been done and dusted by March 9. Why was it taking so long?
Of course Morrison, under fire at question time, denied being misleading.
He then challenged Anthony Albanese to use “other forms of the House” – in other words, try to move a motion.
Albanese did, twice, and was immediately gagged by the government – twice.
By the end of it all, Morrison had trashed his own credibility and left Gaetjens, who is repeatedly depicted by the opposition as being used as Morrison’s political tool – hung out to dry.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra