News Paula Matthewson: Coalition’s women problem goes far beyond politics
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Paula Matthewson: Coalition’s women problem goes far beyond politics

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If you are among the small cohort of women who’ve never experienced sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse or attacks then you might not understand why those who have suffered this treatment are particularly angry right now.

So angry in fact that they pose a real threat to our Teflon-coated Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who until now has invested heavily in a blokey-bloke persona.

Wednesday’s press conference by one of the PM’s most senior lieutenants, the Attorney-General Christian Porter, to deny allegations of horrendous rape more than three decades ago, served only to project his whispered name into the public arena, infuriate the government’s political opponents, and intensify the heartbreak and despair that is fuelling our rage.

To recap, we’ve borne witness to a catalogue of complaints against people both within the Coalition government and associated with it that have shouted to the nation about the need for something to be done – and now – about the toxic male culture that infests the Nationals and Liberal Party.

Then prime minister Tony Abbott appointed himself as the Minister for Women.

We already had an inkling when the new Liberal PM, Tony Abbott, chose to appoint no women to his first senior ministry.

Julie Bishop’s cabinet position was an automatic perk that came with being the Liberals deputy leader. Meanwhile, Mr Abbott appointed himself as the Minister for Women.

However the Coalition’s ‘man problem’ became unavoidably obvious when Catherine Marriott lodged a confidential sexual harassment complaint against then Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, only to have her name immediately leaked to the media.

The party later advised Ms Marriott that it had “been unable to make a determination” about her complaint “due to insufficient evidence”.

Then there was the bullying of female MPs during the Liberal leadership spill that saw Scott Morrison elected as leader and subsequent departure to the crossbench of Julia Banks, the only woman seemingly willing to confront the perpetrators.

Liberal women MPs Julia Banks and Julie Bishop
Julia Banks decision to resign highlighted the problems facing Liberal women, including Julie Bishop. Photo: AAP

Having silenced the Liberal women who stayed with promotions and promises of action, the PM would have hoped he had the matter under control. But a series of revelations since then have set a snowball down a slope that ends at The Lodge.

Perhaps emboldened by the overseas Me Too movement that placed an emphasis on survivors being heard and believed rather than dismissed and gaslighted, women started to come forward with their stories of sexual abuse by people associated with the Liberal Party.

Last year’s Four Corners expose blew the lid on ministerial affairs with staffers, and the lack of workplace protections for personnel reported being treated as a liability once the fling was over.

Which brings us to Brittany Higgins, the brave young former Liberal staffer who was also made to feel a potential political problem when she alleged she’d been raped by another staffer in the office of her boss, then Minister for Defence Industry, Linda Reynolds.

Brittany Higgins has lodged a formal police report, which PM Scott Morrison must deal with.

Surely this is the tipping point, we thought, as Ms Higgins methodically provided her evidence, quietly embodied the rage roiling within many of us, and pointedly exposed the casual gaslighting being deployed by the Prime Minister against her once he eventually tried to manage the fallout.

But no, then we learned about the rape allegation made against a current Cabinet Minister, made even more devastating by the fact that the woman making the allegation had since died by suicide.

Gendered bullying, poisonous office environments, sexual harassment and rape. These are all now associated with both Coalition parties but, at this moment, particularly with the Liberal Party. Of which the PM – Scott Morrison, No.1 bloke – is the leader.

It’s not just the government’s political opponents saying that Christian Porter’s denial of the allegation at Wednesday’s press conference is far from the end of the matter.

It’s the women who’ve endured discrimination, dismissal, disposal and sexual abuse that want the allegations investigated by an independent party.

 

What could such an investigation achieve?

It’s hard to prove something without witnesses or physical evidence. And as Mr Porter pointed out during his press conference, if the allegations against him set the precedent with an inquiry, there is nothing to stop political combatants concocting allegations to hobble their opponents with similar investigations.

But there is the question of the alleged perpetrator holding the highest legal office in the land.

Can Christian Porter continue as Attorney-General with an unresolved allegation against him even though the police have closed the case?

Bill Shorten campaigned for PM despite his legal issues. Photo: AAP 

Labor leader Bill Shorten didn’t stop campaigning to become prime minister when the police decided not to proceed with criminal charges because there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction”.

And Barnaby Joyce still fancies himself as a contender for the Nationals leadership.

Setting such precedents and questions aside, there is a very good reason to hold an investigation into the allegations against Mr Porter – and yes, perhaps even to do the same with allegations against Mr Shorten, given his accuser is reportedly pressing for further action.

That reason is best explained by another fearless survivor of abuse, Grace Tame, who coincidentally spoke at the National Press Club on the same day as the Christian Porter press conference.

Ms Tame said it is so important for our nation and the world to listen to survivors’ stories, and that allowing predators a voice but not survivors encourages the criminal behaviour.

Grace Tame told the National Press Club on Wednesday that survivor’s stories must be heard. Photo: AAP

“Whilst they’re disturbing to hear, the reality of what goes on behind closed doors is more so. And the more details we omit for fear of disturbance, the more we soften these crimes, the more we shield perpetrators from the shame that is misdirected to their targets.

When we share, we heal, reconnect, and grow. Both as individuals and as a united strengthened collective. History, lived experience, the whole truth, unsanitised and unedited, is our greatest learning resource. It is what informs social and structural change.”

This is why women are angry – they’ve been ignored, denied and dismissed for too long.

In the spirit of Me Too, and of the Let Her Speak campaign that Ms Tame is involved in, now is the time for women who have been made victims of toxic behaviour coddled and hidden within the Liberal Party to be heard.

And as the leader of that party, it is incumbent on Scott Morrison to actively hear those women and take the lead in cleaning up the Liberal Party’s act. Failure to do so will not be tolerated.

Earlier this year, the PM stood alongside Grace Tame as she was bestowed with the Australian of the Year Award. It was an image of this moment, and the hypocrisy it represented, that prompted Brittany Higgins to go public with the story of her rape.

During questions after her address on Wednesday, Ms Tame was reminded by a journalist of comments by the PM in May 2019, when he said he hoped to have created an atmosphere where survivors could be believed, and that it was very important that survivors have the confidence to be believed.

Asked whether those words rang true now in the way the PM had handled recent events, Ms Tame said “Clearly not.”