Brough, Briggs and now Dutton: as if one Christmas turkey wasn’t enough.When the Turnbull government waited a month to dump ministers Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs in the silly season, Opposition leader-in-waiting Tanya Plibersek accused them of “taking out the trash” while no one noticed. If that was their strategy, they were badly advised. Far from being too busy to notice, we were too bored not to. Plus now it seems the job was incomplete; Peter Dutton, too, should have been put out for recycling.
Let’s be clear. This is not about personality. It’s about calibre. We won’t know until post-election whether Turnbull has the moral fibre to turn IQ into true leadership. But here what’s in doubt is his judgment. The federal ministry, personally chosen by Turnbull, seems disproportionately populated by gropers, leakers, fibbers, fools, frauds, dickheads and dopes.
Indeed, on hearing Dyson Heydon’s wonderful parataxis – “louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers,” and standover men – I thought it was cabinet he meant, not the unions. Where do these guys get off?
Take Briggs. At first it seemed like quite a small thing. An overseas jaunt, a kiss-on-the-cheek in a public bar and a slightly weird compliment. I mean, “piercing eyes”? A guy said that to me I’d think spit-roast and turn instant vegan. But still. Big deal, right?
Well right, as it happened. It was Briggs’ next move that turned his cheek-peck into a career-limiting step. He declared, point-blank, that “nothing illegal has been alleged or did in fact occur”. He also said that, for her sake, he was protecting the woman’s identity. What a gent. Or so it seemed.
That was already a month after the event. Within days it transpired that Briggs had in fact personally forwarded the woman’s details – a photo, her position and several of her texts – to “a few people”. A few people? Secret?
There are three acts of bastardry here. First, the forwarding which, since some of it occurred after the complaint, looks vengeful. Promises have since been made that the woman’s career will be unaffected. But get real. She’s a Canberra bureaucrat. All potential employers now know her details. Her innocence will be irrelevant. With the troublemaker tag around her neck, her career is distinctly more affected than Briggs’.
Then the fudging. First, the “nothing illegal” protestations; harassment is in fact illegal. It’s clear. Your boss may not bestow unwanted physical attention. It isn’t flirtation, it’s abuse of power. Plus, although Briggs may be an Abbott man, this is meant to be the government that likes women, remember? Not only in bed; likes them as people, colleagues, citizens.
Crikey. Can we have weekly compulsory cabinet showings of the film Suffragette? Please?
Briggs’ second fib, about protecting the woman’s identity, was more concrete and more cowardly. He not only did not protect her identity. He deliberately leaked it – then fibbed to protect himself.
That’s not illegal. But it is ignoble. Marcus Einfeld was jailed not for speeding, but for lying. Sure, he was a judge, and he lied in a statutory declaration. But Briggs was a minister, and like a child he deliberately fibbed to disguise his own arrogance.
Mal Brough is every bit as bad. He made a hash of the Ashbygate saga, telling different stories of his role in James Ashby’s procurement of Peter Slipper’s diary, denying it in Parliament, when he apparently said the opposite in an interview with 60 Minutes.
Dutton, too. The “mad f—ing witch” text about journo Samantha Maiden, who had written a column about Briggs, also seems, on the face of it, fairly slight. Maiden herself is unoffended, and Dutton says they “had a laugh” and made up. All good then.
But is it really so slight? The apology was for being a techno-moron and sending the text to Maiden when it was meant as spot of boy-on-boy commiseration for Briggs – as if it were just an embarrassing slip. As if Briggs were the victim, not the perp.
In fact, that the text was meant for Briggs makes it worse, not better. Had Maiden been the intended recipient it’d be a simple insult. But as an accidental glimpse into how these people really think, as a whiff of the culture that still hangs like a noxious gas in the corridors of government, it’s far more telling. Abbott’s vile “ditch-the-witch” mentality is alive and throbbing.
A month earlier, while Briggs was kissing cheeks in Honkers, Dutton was frantically tweeting for White Ribbon Day. “On this #whiteribbonday & every day, I say violence against women and children is just plain wrong.”
Yet this very Immigration Minister presided over the government’s treatment of hundreds of women and children in Australia’s notorious camps, where violence and rape have been reported, where (two social workers told the ABC in June) inmates are “treated like animals” and subjected to “bride-shopping” by guards who allegedly circulate videos of sexual encounters with female refugees.
In March last year, Scott Morrison’s own Moss report confirmed that a Nauru guard “had demanded to see a female detainee naked in return for allowing her an extra two minutes in the shower with her young child”. In August, a Senate inquiry found that Nauru was “not safe” for children. In October, Save the Children worker Tobias Gunn gave a “harrowing account of seeing a toddler bashed on Nauru”. Although Dutton officially accepted the report’s recommendations there is no evidence – mainly because of the statutory blackout – of any on-the-ground change having resulted. Nothing seems to have changed. A raped and pregnant woman was returned, still pregnant, into harm’s way.
Brough, meanwhile, masterminded the contentious Howard-era “intervention” in Indigenous settlements (supported by the Opposition) which required suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, a move that rightly brought Australia opprobrium from the United Nations.
Don’t be fooled by the kitchen-sink scale of the fibs and misdemeanours that bring these guys undone. It’s the tip of the behavioural iceberg.
Just because they’re not stuffed yet doesn’t mean they’re not turkeys. And just because they’re not out in the back lane yet doesn’t mean they’re not trash.