Scott Morrison appeared before the press on Tuesday to admit that his government had taken the wrong approach in relation to a number of sexual assault and harassment allegations that have been levelled against Liberal Party politicians and staff members.
The admission was significant on a number of levels.
In one respect, it showed that despite the prime minister and his cabinet’s persistent resistance to take the allegations seriously, as well as adequately address them, the huge women’s protests mobilising against this attempted suppression have effected change at the highest level.
The PM’s professed turnaround and supposed readiness to deal with gendered violence and the inequality that permits it also shows Morrison – for the first time as head of state – reacting to the will of the people in a way that one would expect the leader of a liberal democracy to act.
Although, it’s notable that after a month of allegations involving rape and violence against women, what actually brought Morrison over the line to “stand” with women was the image of a male staffer masturbating alone on top of a desk in Parliament House.
This change of heart tactic has further significance as due to the thuggish manner in which the prime minister has consistently played politics this backtracking actually marks a sizable defeat for the Coalition that, under its current leadership, it may never come back from.
As Morrison retracted his prior stance, his words failed to ring true as he’d just spent a month shrugging off serious sexual assault allegations, along with admitting to the public that he’d had to check in with his wife to figure out how he should feel about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins.
In a seeming attempt to rally women around him, on Tuesday, he remarked, “I need women to stand with me as we go about this, as we stand together. I need them to stand in this place. I need them to stand right where they are.”
However, it was lost upon few that only eight days before he uttered these words, large numbers of women had rallied nationwide to call for change in relation to the crisis of gendered violence in the community that only continues to rise under the Morrison government.
And when March for Justice organisers invited the PM to stand with the thousands of women who gathered out the front of his workplace that day, he publicly turned down the invitation.
Morrison further asserted this week that he wants “women to have at least the same opportunities” as men.
Yet, on International Women’s Day 2019, he told a meeting that in regard to gender equality, it’s not a Liberal Party value to “push some people down to lift some people up”.
“We want to see women rise,” Morrison explained to the Women in Resources breakfast crowd. “But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.”
Morrison’s performance as head of state has been marked by paternalism: rather than listen to the want of the public, he dictates how things are going to be.
This has been stark in his approach to climate, to welfare issues, his prioritisation of religious freedom laws, and especially in his recent approach to women and gendered violence.
In relation to the rape allegations against Christian Porter, the PM simply told the public that no inquiry would be forthcoming and that was it.
Although, it was fine for the attorney to pull a defamation suit out of his back pocket using laws he’d been attempting to amend due to their bias.
Morrison mislead parliament last week as he was questioned in regard to the inquiry into the Higgins allegations. When asked about the investigation led by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens, he failed to disclose that it had been suspended on 9 March.
The inquiry was ordered by the PM in February to ascertain who amongst his office was aware of the rape allegations prior to Ms Higgins going public. Gaetjens said he’d suspended it on the advice of AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw, who initially denied this claim but then supported it.
Yet, either way, the truth around who amongst Morrison’s office was sweeping a rape incident under the carpet has been silenced for the time being.
The PM also showed his truth colours mid-backtracking speech, when a News Corp journalist asked about his job being jeopardised by the fallout around the allegations.
Morrison jumped down the reporter’s throat, suggesting there was a harassment allegation being dealt with at his workplace.
“Let’s not all of us who sit in glass houses here start getting into that,” the prime minister said to the journalist in regard to the claims that News Corp has since denied.
“So, you are free to make your criticisms and to stand on that pedestal but be careful,” Morrison further warned.
Too little, too late
Morrison’s time in office has been notable for its climate denial, the pursuit of laws that would permit discrimination against minorities, disregard for the truth, resistance to establishing an anti-corruption watchdog, and now sexual assault, victim blaming and sex in the prayer room.
And as he consistently wears his Pentecostal faith on his sleeve, one could be excused in questioning just what kind of faith doctrine underpins it.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Morrison also backtracked on the language he used just after the women’s protest on the lawns of parliament, when he suggested that it was “a triumph of democracy” that “such marches” aren’t “met with bullets” as in other countries.
“No offence was intended by that either,” Morrison said in retraction. “I could have chosen different words.”
However, conflating state-sponsored violence, or the avoidance of it, with a protest against widespread violence against women isn’t a mistake the PM can afford right now, even with an accompanying apology.
In further making amends, Morrison listed a long list of women’s grievances, including being “afraid to call out bad behaviour for fear of losing a job”, being fearful to walk alone in public, as well as being overlooked and talked over.
And the PM listed these issues like he’d only just become aware of them.
But the time to acknowledge all this was with the coming of the initial allegations, or at least when women gathered out the front of parliament in their thousands, not after some lewd selfies hit the mainstream media making anything less than a retraction advisable.
Indeed, with an election around the corner, it bodes well in terms of progress for the women’s movement that this will be the issue that sees the downfall of Morrison.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.