The only time our Prime Minister has demonstrated empathy is when it comes to protecting his own interests, writes Paul Begley.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape
DOES PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison really care?
On Wednesday, in the wake of a serious allegation about a 1988 rape naming him as the perpetrator, Attorney-General Christian Porter conducted a masterclass defence of himself in a press conference screened on national television. It confirmed the fact that he is a debater of distinction, but in the wash-up, his performance didn’t make sense in the wider context.
He claimed to be a victim of an allegation he could not disprove because the witness was dead and the allegation could unjustly end his career. He claimed journalists had never raised that matter with him, a claim that numerous journalists have since denied, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell tweeting after the press conference: ‘We tried. Left messages with staff. Calls not returned.’ Mr Porter lamented that hyper-adversarial politics had come to this, having the previous week stopped successive Opposition members in their tracks with the mantra: “I move the member no longer be heard.”
His performance followed a press conference given on Monday by Scott Morrison. The PM said he had spoken to the accused Minister, that the Minister said he had not done what he was accused of doing and that because he was the Prime Minister of Australia with the power to decide the Minister’s fate, he was not going to stand him down.
The immediate context of those press conferences was a continuing crisis triggered by a former Liberal staffer, Brittany Higgins, from the Defence Minister’s office. In 2019, she accused a former colleague of raping her in the Minister’s office. Three other former Liberal staffers have since attested that the same colleague sexually assaulted them when they worked with him. The alleged perpetrator was fired in 2019 over a security breach, not rape.
Ms Higgins claims that she was told at the time if she reported the rape to the police, it would cost her the “dream job” she had worked so hard to get. Her career came to a standstill. She resigned from her job in February 2021.
Prior to the Attorney-General’s press conference, some ministerial colleagues defended the unnamed Minister by citing due process and presumption of innocence, presumably hoping they didn’t trigger Robodebt thoughts about a failure of due process that cost the Government $1.2 billion.
Observers noticed that the PM spoke in a near whisper as a way of suggesting the gravity of the moment as well as empathy for someone. It eventually became clear that there was plenty of empathy on display, but it was empathy for his besieged Cabinet members, the accused Minister and his own predicament, if it’s possible to extend empathy that close to home.
Much like the empathy for Aborigines whose lives were disrupted by the members of the early settlers taking their land, it might have been a bit hard for them but we needed to know that it was “not flash” for the new arrivals, either. Life was not flash for the Prime Minister at the moment and we needed to realise that as a relevant fact; nor was life flash for the Cabinet Minister who said he hadn’t done it.
Like other shameless politicians, Prime Minister Morrison’s words from the past have a way of referencing what he is seeming to say now. He appears to be saying that he cares deeply about rape allegations that are casting a shadow over his government but the caring is finally revealed to be about the shadow, not about the gravity of the allegations. He demands that sunlight be seen regardless of the prevalence of black clouds blocking it out. Let there be sunlight. It’s a power thing.
There had once been talk on social media that Scott Morrison had engaged an empathy consultant so he could emote feelings he didn’t feel. It was always hard to believe that talk and it appeared his press conference confirmed it was misguided.
Unlike the Attorney-General, listening to feelings that the Prime Minister was trying to fake activated a reminder of where he actually stands on feeling and caring. We know how he thinks on the matter because he told Annabel Crabb during an interview on her 2015 Kitchen Cabinet cooking program that he had learnt a key lesson about how to cope in politics.
He pointed it out to Annabel and he seemed genuinely proud of it:
“I've really learned not to care; and I really don't that much.”
“Really”, twice. Was that a truthful moment? Probably yes. Does he regret having said it? Probably not. Woke inner-city lower-case liberals and leftists are known for caring and virtue signalling, bleeding hearts on full display. They are not Morrison’s people. By making a virtue of not caring, he was parading a credential among the hardened shock jocks on Sydney radio, on Sky and within Murdoch’s hard-nosed stable that he was sure would stand him in good stead. That proved true when pitching himself as Prime Minister to drivers of utes in the suburbs who showed appropriate contempt for snowflake leftists who bleated about the merits of electric vehicles.
Morrison was Treasurer at the time of the Kitchen Cabinet interview and a former Immigration Minister. In that role, he furnished abundant evidence about his capacity to be equally uncaring about the feelings of asylum seekers and the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs. As the Shadow Immigration Minister, he had often made it too easy to imagine he and Tony Abbott high-fiving each time another leaky asylum-seeker boat crashed onto rocks on the West Australian coast, giving them a gleeful opportunity to add a number to their macabre scoreboard tally of tragic boat arrivals.
In March 2019, Scott Morrison spoke about Australian women at a mining conference and if there was ever any doubt about how little he cared about issues close to women, a line from that speech sealed it:
“We want to see women rise but we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.”
To men listening, they know they are the “others” he’s talking about. Their privileges and entitlements are non-negotiable yet movement on them is a prerequisite for the advancement and safety of women. Women can say that gender equity only feels like oppression to men because men are accustomed to privilege, but that is a premise he would implicitly dismiss.He couches his sentence to the miners as one that contains a cadence of soft compromise but trumps it with the hard logic of stubborn intransigence.
To women listening, they get it and he knows they get it, but he doesn’t really care. Gender equity will not happen on his watch if it means men having to abandon their sense of entitlement.
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears to fake feelings that he doesn’t feel, we might laugh at his bad acting performances, but we do well to remember his laughable U.S. televangelist performance in claiming to “burn” for Australia during the 2019 Election campaign, an election he won. And then it dawns that he really doesn’t care about our laughter because he is laughing at us. It’s a power thing.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
Paul Begley lives in Melbourne, Australia. Until recently, he worked in public affairs.
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