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Why Morrison's response to rape is woefully inadequate

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(Caricature courtesy Bruce Keogh / keoghcartoons.com.au)

If parliamentary culture fosters sexual violence, treats rape as a political problem, undermines women and covers up criminal offences, then “further improvements” won't cut it, write Professor Carl Rhodes, Celina McEwen and Professor Alison Pullen.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

SCOTT MORRISON'S response to Brittany Higgins’ damning allegations of being raped at work has come under deserved criticism.

It started when the Prime Minister admitted to referring to his wife, Jenny Morrison, as his advisor on the matter. The only compassion he could muster was to imagine how he might feel if this had happened to one of his daughters. He decided to respond "as a father" to the horrific reports of sexual assault in Parliament.

Quite rightly, there was a public outcry about his "faux" empathy. This is absolutely not about him or his family. His paternal status should have nothing to do with his ability to condemn sexual violence against women.

Morrison’s insensitivity is one part of the issue. The other is that his response to sexual violence from the position of "a father" is not the solution. In fact, it reveals the heart of the problem — the patriarchy of Australian politics.

To react to the rape of a woman from the position of male parenthood offers no antidote to the male power deployed in sexual violence. Patriarchy is a system of oppression based on sexism, misogyny and masculine privilege. It is about the assumption of men’s right to rule and to exercise power. It is built on a model of the father as the head of the household.

Patriarchal power can come in many forms. It might be a man acting on the assumed right to have sex with a woman irrespective of consent. It can also come in the assumption that male roles, such as being a "father", are the source of authority.

When pressed, Morrison’s proposed solution relied on women having to change. Increasing the "agency of women" was what he proffered. Only then would women have the power to "make the decisions that are best for them", he espoused.

Pointing to women’s lack of agency reflects a long history of assuming that women are vulnerable and not able to stand up for themselves. It makes the patriarchal assumption that being a man is about being in control and dominating others and situations.

The Prime Minister seems to be recycling erroneous positions to sexual discrimination in the workplace to "fix women" and, even more scandalously, by making them more like men.

What’s completely missing in Morrison’s response to sexual violence in parliament is a recognition of the systemic patriarchy that is woven into our society. Also missing is an acceptance that it is this same system of patriarchy that fuels sexual violence against women.

Hasn’t the Morrison Government learned anything from the #MeToo movement? One of the crucial lessons from #MeToo is that gendered violence is entrenched in patriarchy and male power. Harvey Weinstein was able to get away with being a violent sexual predator for so long precisely because he was a powerful man in a man’s world.  

Dealing with the same problems in Australian society is not about responding "like a father". It is about abrogating and delegitimising the systems of male power and the belief that men have the right to authority.

When it was revealed that many parliamentary employees knew about the alleged incident for more than a year before Higgins made the case public, the extent of the problem came into true light.

Without Higgins’ courageous decision, men’s impunity to perpetrate sexual violence against women in the house of power would only be confronted by whispers. It is thanks to that bravery that other women have now also come forward.

The Prime Minister denying that he knew anything about the incident until it was in the headlines is not the form of leadership needed. Nor is leadership "as a father".

The events reported by Brittany Higgins are truly horrific. The response by Australia’s leader is woefully inadequate. Even the Government’s inquiry 'to identify ways that standards and expectations and practices can be further improved' and put in new complaints processes misses the point.

Culture is about the norms, values and expectations shared by a group of people. If the parliamentary culture is one that fosters sexual violence, treats rape as a political problem, undermines women and covers up criminal offences, then what is needed is very far beyond “further improvements”.

What needs to change is the underlying system of male power that rules the nation.

This was the time to show leadership that takes responsibility for confronting the patriarchal institutions that foster rape and all forms of sexual violence and discrimination. That leadership is absent.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online here.

Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney; you can follow him on Twitter @ProfCarlRhodesAlison Pullen is Professor of Management and Organisation Studies at Macquarie University. Celina McEwen is Senior Research Fellow in Management, University of Technology Sydney.

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