As more women of Parliament make a stand against Scott Morrison's misogyny, his feeble attempts to save face are potentially losing voters, writes Andrew P Street.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape and sexual abuse
PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison's political instincts have always been to turn what should be pretty straightforward matters into vote-harvesting culture wars, whether it's people fleeing persecution by boat, the viability of coal-burning power, or whether adults should be permitted to marry each other. So it's not a shock that his response to the seemingly endless reports of sexual harassment, abuse and violence from within Parliament House has been to politicise them along party lines, but it's fair to say that it's been a roaring anti-success.
In fact, between the constantly-evolving story about how the Morrison Government failed staffer Brittany Higgins after allegedly being raped in the office of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds to the zeal with which the PM has defended his Attorney-General over historical rape allegations, the Federal Liberal Party has put itself in the strange position of being seen to actively support accused perpetrators of violence while undermining their victims.
And Monday wasn't exactly a day of triumphs for Morrison, since it started with the bombshell that the inquiry into the Higgins allegations by regular Coalition fixer Philip Gaetjens had been quietly paused without any attempt to interview the women involved and ended with the vile farce of Coalition staffers masturbating over the desks of female MPs being reported on Channel 10 news.
If there was an upside for the Government, it's that by that evening a lot of Australia had already filled up on their disgust-quota by the time Four Corners revealed more evidence about the Higgins case, which cast further doubt on the PM's already-implausible insistence that he'd been unaware of the allegations. Kudos to the courageous security guard Nikola Anderson, who went on record about the total nonsense of the “security breach” cover story when it dawned on her that she was probably next on the chopping block following the Government's apparent policy of sacking any nearby woman for the actions of predatory men.
Leaving aside the ethics of the matter, Morrison has also dealt himself a severe political blow by forcing the public to draw comparisons between the actions of women in his government and those of the Opposition.
Reynolds is yet to return to work, either due to a pre-existing heart condition or for the injuries she sustained when the PM threw her under the bus for supposedly not informing him of the Higgins allegations — a claim that seemed tissue-thin at the time and is positively diaphanous after the Four Corners report.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has similarly denied knowing that Higgins had reported a rape, despite the existence of a voicemail in which she expressed sympathy, pledged support and actually seemed like the only person in the Government that genuinely cared about the woman at the centre of this horrific situation.
And to add insult to literal injury, Minister for Women Marise Payne made a point of not attending last week’s March 4 Justice at Parliament House because “I don't normally attend marches” — or, more specifically, because Scott Morrison refused to and she presumably knew what sort of response she'd get by defying his example.
In fact, the only Liberal MP to speak out on behalf of conservative women has been retiring South Australian backbencher Nicolle Flint, who was the subject of a terrifying campaign by a dangerous stalker during the 2019 Election campaign. However, her speech was undermined by the apparent requirement to make it party political, since her implications of having also been subject to a bullying campaign from misogynist campaigners for Labor was somewhat undercut by the fact Labor's candidate at the time was the outspokenly feminist Nadia Clancy.
It's handed Labor an easy compare-and-contrast, which the Party has not ignored. Leader Anthony Albanese aside, the most prominent voices in the public sphere of late have been those of the high-powered trio of Penny Wong, Kristina Keneally and Tanya Plibersek, while the dudes have mainly been respectfully shutting the hell up. That all three are popular, prominent leaders in the Party anyway just emphasises the difference between how women are treated by their respective party leaderships.
Similarly, the female-majority Greens have been front and centre with Senator Sarah Hanson-Young ripping strips off Gaetjens in Senate Estimates and Lidia Thorpe cataloguing harassment during her six months as a senator. Similarly, independents including Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie MP, Zali Steggall for Warringah and MP for Indi Helen Haines have all been vocal about their disgust at the culture in Parliament House. And, sure, Pauline Hanson has been more worried about the fee-fees of the poor accused men, but at least she's consistent in always having the least-correct take imaginable.
And because women's safety is not a left-right issue, the politicisation is losing Morrison voters, as the last Newspoll indicated. What's more, it risks losing him government much earlier than the next election if increasingly frustrated MPs like Karen Andrews end up deciding they can force more change from the crossbench than from the party room.
Morrison's attempt to turn things around on Tuesday morning went awry when his tearful pledge to listen to women was contradicted by his implication that, yet again, he’s the wronged party here.
He told them:
“I acknowledge that many Australians, especially women, believe that I have not heard them and that greatly distresses me. I have done many things to get more women in this place and I intend to do more. I have put more women in my Cabinet than any other Prime Minister ever has before."
And then, minutes later, he was cutting down a journalist's questions over his handling of these matters by telling them that there'd been a sexual assault allegation in a related media organisation two years ago, “so let's not all of us who sit in glass houses here start getting into that”.
Why he was across that and yet supposedly blissfully unaware of what was happening in his own government remains a tantalising mystery.
It’s not the first time he’s turned the issue of women's safety into an indignant point-scoring exercise, but at this rate, it might prove to be among his last.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
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