Dennis Atkins: Scott Morrison’s handling of the Christian Porter scandal could be his undoing

The pandemic has been a blessing for scandal-plagued politicians including the PM and NSW premier, but the Christian Porter affair is different.

The pandemic has been a blessing for scandal-plagued politicians including the PM and NSW premier, but the Christian Porter affair is different.

Gladys Berejiklian was careful in picking a word to describe how she’s dealt with a series of personal and broader political crises over the past six months.

A scandal trifecta – a previously secret affair with a disgraced MP the subject of corruption inquiry, the Coalition’s minor party member threatening to quit the government over koalas, and pork-barrelling grants – might have floored the New South Wales Premier in other circumstances.

However, she’s not just still standing, her approval ratings and those of her Liberal-led government have prospered.

Asked about all this at a business talkfest during the week, Berejiklian said she didn’t listen to any of it, calling it all “noise”.

gladys berejiklian

Gladys Berejiklian has survived a trifecta of scandals, including a secret affair with Daryl Maguire.

The word ‘noise’ is instructive because it’s the term pollsters have used for anything happening outside the main game during the past year – dealing with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

The once in a century, economy-stopping pandemic has been called the greatest ‘get out of jail free’ card politicians have ever been dealt. It’s true and so far remains just that.

Berejiklian and her noise is testament to this fact. As is the absence of consequence in Canberra where it is now almost officially impossible to get sacked from Scott Morrison’s ministry.

The real stress test of this theory is set for next week. The shocking allegation of rape levelled against Attorney-General Christian Porter – strenuously denied in an emotional media appearance before taking mental health leave – hasn’t found a political resolution.

A-G Christian Porter is on mental health leave after strenuously denying raping a 16 year old girl in 1988.

The Labor Party is standing firm in backing calls for an inquiry which have spread from friends of the woman, now deceased, who made the allegations to a broad group of legal advocates, women’s rights campaigners and, on Friday, senior business executive James Hooke.

Hooke is the person putting the most pressure on the resolution from Morrison and his colleagues against having an inquiry.

The banking executive says he discussed matters in the deceased woman’s life with her and alludes to talking about them with Porter.

“I have what I consider to be clear recollections of relevant discussions I had with (the woman) over the years from mid-1988 until her death,” Hooke said in a statement on Friday.

The woman who claimed she was raped by Christian Porter in 1988. Photo: ABC/Supplied

“I also have what I consider to be clear recollections of relevant discussions I had with Christian Porter from April 1992 in Perth and through the mid-1990s.”

At the very least, this strains Porter’s purported surprise at these allegations. He said he knew nothing of these matters until suggestions and purported details began circulating the week before his media event, apart from some unspecified “rumours” which had been around in late 2020.

This is the sharpest dent in Porter’s story and adds compelling weight to calls for some kind of inquiry – apart and aside from normal legal process.

The prime minister’s insistence there is only one way of handling these things – the rule of law is the first, second and last line of defence and offence for Morrison – is as laughable as it is logically weak.

Taken to any conclusion – or even part of the way there – this would make every decision faced by Morrison in relation to the behaviour of his ministers (and by extension all of his Liberal colleagues) judiciable.

Under his “rule of law” edict, Morrison would only be able to deal with his ministers on an “evidence admissible in court” basis.

Maybe that’s the way he operates already. After all, Energy Minister Angus Taylor has faced no consequences over the creation of a fake document used to attack Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

angus taylor nsw police

Energy Minister Angus Taylor used a forged document to attack Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

That’s just one example from a long roll of shame collated by Crikey, Michael West, The Monthly and other publications and broadcasters in recent times.

When they gather in Canberra on Monday, MPs will find it impossible to miss the many thousands of women planning to rally and surround the national Parliament. Across Australia similar rallies are planned in at least 40 locations from Cairns in Far North Queensland to Bunbury in south-west WA and many places in between.

With Porter’s recollection now under genuine pressure and the calls for an inquiry growing in intensity and substance, Morrison is going to find his own position given maximum political and social pressure.

Scott Morrison has stood by Porter, declaring him “an innocent man under our law”.

An interesting but not analogous comparison can be drawn with what’s been happening in New York in recent weeks where Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has faced growing allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.

He dug in, tried to stare down his accusers before sending the claims off to the state’s attorney-general for an independent inquiry. By the end of this week that doesn’t look like cutting it, despite residual support in the community for Cuomo and his handling of the pandemic.

Now his Democratic Party colleagues look like instituting the first impeachment proceedings in the state in more than 100 years.
Stress and politics collide with an unpredictable potency. Next week will see how it works in this part of the world.

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