Scott Morrison’s Pledge to Address Parliamentary Culture: Too Little, Too Late?

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Porter, Morrison, and Reynolds

It might be Australia’s worst kept secret, but both Attorney-General Christian Porter and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds look set to lose their respective portfolios in a cabinet reshuffle to be announced in the coming days.

Both have been at the centre of the sexual assault allegations plaguing Parliament, and have taken medical leave to deal with stress. They are expected to return early next month.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he has sought advice from Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue about Mr Porter’s portfolio responsibilities, and asked the head of his department, Phil Gaetjens, how these apply to the ministerial standards.

Legal action

Mr Porter strenuously denies allegations that he sexually assaulted a fellow student who committed suicide last year, and has launched defamation proceedings against the ABC and its reporter Louise Milligan.

Many have raised concerns about what they feel may be a conflict of interest between the defamation proceedings and Mr Porter’s role as the chief lawmaker of the nation; particularly given he was instrumental is calling for a change in defamation laws to include – among other things – a ‘public interest’ defence.

As a result, some of Mr Porter’s roles and responsibilities have been delegated to other ministers while the defamation case is before the courts.

Ironically, Mr Porter may now benefit from the fact the proposed reforms have not yet been enacted.

While it is expected that Mr Porter will remain in cabinet, possibly retaining his Industrial Relations portfolio, Michaelia Cash is expected to replace him as Attorney General.

Linda Reynolds is also likely to be relieved of the responsibilities of her existing portfolio after coming under sustained criticism for her handling of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation.

The Prime Minister has faced intense scrutiny in recent weeks and has been under serious pressure to make changes to his cabinet.

Many simply believe that it’s not possible for Mr Porter or Ms Reynolds to return to their roles.

Mr Porter has serious allegations shadowing his reputation, while Ms Reynolds showed a lack of leadership and professionalism when she called Brittany Higgins a ‘lying cow.

Can the PM save his government’s reputation?

Earlier this week, the strain on the PM began to show after images of male staff masturbating an showing their genitals at work were leaked to media.

When a journalist suggested that if he were a CEO in the corporate world facing these issues his job might be in jeopardy, the PM responded by referencing the sexual assault of a woman in the female toilet at the media company the journalist works for.

The statement was factually untrue –  and unnecessary – and the PM publicly apologised hours later.

While there is no talk (yet) of a leadership spill, and his party continues to stand by him, by and large the Australian public have come to the conclusion that Scott Morrison lacks empathy and is exceptionally slow to gauge national sentiment.

His response to the sexual assault allegations plaguing Parliament and the subsequent rising up of female voices all around the country, echo the same insensitivity he showed during the Australian bushfires in 2019.

Women are demanding real change

More than that, his responses also demonstrate ignorance with regard to a range of other issues: the fact that the majority of JobSeeker recipients are women, that more women than men lost jobs during the Covid pandemic, that women over the age of 60 are Australia’s fastest growing homeless population, and that women’s safety is continually under threat in their own homes, in our communities and at work.

While the PM has promised to finally respond to the Respect@Work report delivered more than a year ago by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, many believe this long overdue and a ‘token gesture’ when considered against the Morrison Government’s failure to address the significant number of serious social issues affecting women in this country.

The allegations keep coming

More evidence of the poor treatment of women and the prevalence of a misogynistic culture  within politics has emerged in recent days with New South Wales Nationals MP, Michael Johnsen, making the decision to stand aside amid allegations that he raped a female sex worker.

Mr Jonsen has issued a statement saying he has voluntarily spoken with New South Wales Police, and will continue to cooperate with any investigation.

The revelation comes after Labor MP Trish Doyle told NSW Parliament on Wednesday that an MP (she did not name him explicitly) allegedly raped a sex worker at a secluded lookout in the Blue Mountains.

NSW Police have confirmed that an investigation is underway. The female sex worker claimed in emails to Trish Doyle that she was offered $200 for ‘oral sex only’ and made herself clear that she was not willing to have penetrative sex. However towards the end of the encounter, the man moved around behind her and assaulted her in a way she had not consented to.

Ms Doyle is reported as saying the woman is “hurt and angry that this powerful man felt entitled to assault her and remains fearful that this powerful man will seek reprisals against her for reporting this rape.”

As occurred in the US after the conviction of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, women are using this moment to find the courage to stand up and speak out.

This could also result in an increased number of reports filed with police.

One thing is clear – these  issues of gendered violence and inequality show no signs of going away and it will take a lot more than a cabinet reshuffle to abate the mounting pressure on the government to take decisive, committed action towards fundamental change.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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