opinion

Peter van Onselen: If you were going to be rude to the PM at the National Press Club, why go at all?

Early last week, Channel 10 political reporter Peter van Onselen wrote an opinion about the behaviour of 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame.

Tame had been filmed and photographed interacting with the prime minister during an Australia Day function at The Lodge.

Looking visibly uncomfortable in the presence of Scott Morrison, the 27-year-old, who received her Australian of the Year honour for her advocacy for survivors of sexual assault, did not smile. With one hand in her pocket, she unenthusiastically shook his hand, only smiling briefly when greeted by Morrison's wife, Jenny. As their photo was taken, Tame side-eyed the man standing beside her - a man she has been fiercely critical of for his response to allegations of sexual assault and toxic workplace culture in federal parliament. The same man who, after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she had been raped in a ministerial office, said he had discussed it with his wife who encouraged him to consider it as a father of daughters. 

At the time, Tame told the National Press Club: "It shouldn't take having children to have a conscience.

"And actually, on top of that, having children doesn't guarantee a conscience."

Last year, Morrison's government also rejected calls for an independent inquiry into historical rape allegations against then attorney general Christian Porter. Morrison had notably failed to read a letter and attached statement from the alleged victim that were sent to him.

Grace Tame standing beside Scott Morrison at The Lodge. Image: ABC.

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But despite all this, the fact Grace Tame did not smile as she stood beside the Prime Minister became a heated topic of national debate. 

In The Australian, Peter van Onselen asked: Grace Tame: If your disdain for the PM is so great why go?

The reporter labelled the childhood sexual abuse survivor's behaviour as "embarrassing," describing her as "ungracious, rude and childish". 

If she couldn't be a decent human being, he asked, why bother to attend at all? If her disdain for Morrison is so great, to the point where she might be - god forbid - rude, she should've just stayed home.

Van Onselen went on to accuse Tame of "acting like a child displaying a lack of basic manners," and attempting to "excite the mob on social media". Her lack of politeness towards Morrison was "brazen and not for virtuous reasons," he argued. An act of "juvenile dissent". 

Then, one week later, Van Onselen found himself in the National Press Club. With cameras on him, he was given the floor to question the Prime Minister.

Referring to the speech Morrison had given earlier, Van Onselen began: "At the start of your speech, you mentioned your close friendship with Marise Payne. I wanted to ask you about another close friend, Gladys Berejiklian.

"I've been provided with a text message exchange between the former New South Wales premier and a current Liberal cabinet minister.

"I've got them right here. In one she describes you as, 'A horrible, horrible person', going on to say she did not trust you and... you're more concerned with politics than people.

"The minister is even more scathing," he continued. 

"Describing you as a 'fraud' and 'a complete psycho'. Does this exchange surprise you? And what do you think that it tells us?"

Watch: The text exchange that has the nation talking. Post continues after video.


Video via Channel 10. 
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The look on Scott Morrison's face - eyes wide, mouth slightly agape - said far more than his jumbled words in response.

He's shocked. Perhaps even hurt. He appears at a loss, before saying, "I obviously don't agree with it." 

Of course, what response could he give? Your colleagues think you're a complete psycho, Sir. How does that make you feel?

Since the clip went viral, there's been relentless debate about whether the question from Van Onselen was in the public interest. Is it important for voters to know, ahead of an election, what Morrison's colleagues really think of him? Or are the texts just an example of human beings letting off steam in a private context, with the question designed to hurt and embarrass the Prime Minister?

Either way, by any social contract, telling a person their peers think they're horrible, in a public setting which requires them to respond on the spot, surely qualifies as 'rude' and 'brazen'. Arguably more so than the silence of Grace Tame, who simply didn't smile during a photo opportunity with a man who has an appalling track record when it comes to taking sexual abuse seriously.

By his own logic, if Van Onselen was going to 'refuse to be polite,' why did he go to the National Press Club at all? According to him, it would've been more respectful to not go, making a statement of disapproval by his absence. 

But, as the Ten journalist is clearly aware, being part of a democracy means that in Australia, our elected officials are accountable to the public they govern. This means journalists have the right to question them, commentators have the right to their opinions, and citizens - like Grace Tame - are under no obligation to feign their endorsement. 

If Van Onselen's question was in the public interest, surely Tame's behaviour is too.

For more from Clare Stephens, you can follow her on Instagram and Facebook

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