Since the turn of the century, crime rates in Australia have been on a consistent downward spiral. However, the persistent exception to this has been the rate of adult sexual assault – it’s been on the increase.
Violence towards women – whether it be domestic, sexual, coercive or lethal – has been a front and centre issue over the last decade. And this focus makes the PM’s reaction to the alleged 2019 rape of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins all the more disappointing, as well as backward.
“Jenny and I spoke last night,” Scott Morrison told a press conference on 16 February 2021, “and she said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’”
“Jenny has a way of clarifying things,” the PM added, “always has.”
In making this admission, our leader made clear that it was necessary to consult his wife on learning of the sexual assault allegations, so she could humanise the former Liberal employee by likening her to his family members, which in turn enabled him to comprehend the gravity of the crime.
The politics of apathy
Regardless of whether anyone buys the claim that no one ran the alleged rape in the defence minister’s office in the leadup to the last federal election by the PM before last week, it’s hard to decipher what kind of impression Morrison was trying to make with the ask his wife scenario.
Was the PM suggesting that a man, like him, when confronted with the rape of a young woman doesn’t have the cognitive ability judge such an act without seeking the instruction of a member of the opposite sex?
But putting this confusion aside, there was one clear message the prime minister put across during this press conference, which was consistent with his previous rhetoric, and that is his inability to empathise with the plight of the Other.
There has been a wide range of issues that have involved Morrison conveying that he doesn’t have the capacity to place himself in the shoes of those who don’t possess the same characteristics as him: whether that be women, people of colour, LGBTIQ communities, refugees or the poor.
Take International Women’s Day 2019, for instance. On addressing a Women in Resources breakfast in WA, the PM said in reference to gender equality, that it’s not a Liberal Party value to “push some people down to lift some people up”.
“We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse,” Morrison said, as he worked the crowd. Here, the PM seems to be suggesting that while equality is preferable, that’s only if men like him remain in the power positions they’ve secured.
A father first
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Higgins has made clear that she hasn’t been too impressed with the prime minister’s response to her revelations.
As of Monday afternoon, a fourth woman has come forward with allegations against the same ex-Liberal party employee accussed of the sexual assault.
At last week’s press conference, 10 News reporter Tegan George asked Morrison why he had to consult his wife first prior to responding to the rape allegations, as couldn’t he have simply put it into the context of being a “human being”, and the PM responded, “I can’t follow the question”.
And herein lies the dilemma. Morrison has now established four internal investigations into sex discrimination and harassment complaints within Parliament House, and it’s hoped that at least one of these will address the most obvious question about his leadership.
This line of inquiry should consist of whether having a man with an inability to feel empathy towards women outside of his immediate family in charge of government is having an impact on the outlook other male colleagues and the overall culture in parliament.
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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.