After yet another explosive report by the ABC’s Four Corners on Monday night, accompanied by a sordid tale from Network 10 of male Coalition staffers getting their jollies on the desks of female MPs, Scott Morrison staged a media confessional on Tuesday morning in an attempt to change the narrative.
The one tumbling into the eyes, ears and brains of everyday Australian voters that ScoMo is a FauxMo; that the nation’s self-appointed No.1 bloke is not the harmless daggy dad he’d like us to think; that in fact the PM is dangerously not a friend of Australian women.
It’s hard to know why it took until Tuesday – four months after the first Four Corners program blew the lid on the bad behaviour of two senior Cabinet ministers – six weeks after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins went public with the details of her alleged rape by a colleague – and eight days after 100,000 women marched to make it clear that these were not isolated incidents – for the PM to finally resort to a teary mea culpa before the assembled media.
Perhaps he’d taken a moment to scan the results of a (albeit unscientific) readers’ poll run by news.com.au, which found a staggering 75 per cent of readers don’t feel safe out at night, 80 per cent had taken out their keys for protection or used evasive behaviour, 51 per cent had been sexually harassed at work (but 76 per cent of those did not report it) and 36 per cent encountered their first sexual predatory behaviour when aged 10 to 15.
As ABC broadcaster and journalist Patricia Karvelas put it so succinctly on Tuesday, it seems the Coalition has been so “convinced the issues around rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment were boutique feminist issues that didn’t have cut through in Australian suburbs,” it has “belatedly realised that sexism knows no class, race or political persuasion”.
Or perhaps the PM took a look at the latest opinion polls, with Newspoll showing the Coalition’s primary vote has dropped to its lowest since the PM’s Black Summer belligerence, while Essential found that even two-thirds of Coalition voters think ‘What is happening in Canberra is relevant to all women’ and that ‘It’s time women were believed when they say they have been assaulted’.
It may even be that the PM is facing an internal revolt by female Liberal MPs, finally sick to the teeth from too long being the silent enablers of Coalition bovver boys, and now threatening to go rogue on quotas and who knows what else?
Whatever the reason, the PM reverted to Crisis Management 101, saying he was shocked and disgusted at the shameful behaviour of the male staffers, and while not exactly apologising for his actions, vowed that he had now heard what Australian women were saying.
He even made reference to many of the scenarios canvassed in the news.com.au poll (without naming it) and threw in a few tears for good measure.
But for many women and men witnessing the performance, and perhaps for the Parliamentary press gallery who’ve seen this tactic far too many times, the PM’s tearful – but unacceptably delayed conversion – is far too little, too late.
The PM must have realised this as he then faced a barrage of media questions on Tuesday.
Like a cat in a bathtub, the PM scrabbled and clawed at anything that might help him out of his predicament.
When the faux apology, empathy and tears failed, he tried other tactics in quick succession to get the media to back off.
He cautioned journalists about the precarious mental health of those male Coalition staffers, even obscurely referring to tragic incidents in the past.
And then the PM proved that he had not been listening at all.
In answer to a question from Sky News Australia about losing control of his staff, Morrison warned the journalist about throwing stones in glass houses, claiming that a harassment complaint had been lodged by a presumably female employee in News Corp, the owner of Sky News.
A prime minister who had truly listened to what Australian women have been saying over the past month would not have divulged such a thing to score a political point.
Just as Brittany Higgins has undoubtedly been mortified, over and over again, by the public revelations of her alleged assault, the News Corp employee would likely be similarly humiliated to see her private business used as a cheap debating tactic.
Is it any wonder that only 51 per cent of the respondents to the news.com.au poll said they’d be comfortable reporting their sexual assault to the police?
This is the potentially career-limiting problem for PM Morrison – his actions do not match his words.
Ever since the first Four Corners expose in November, the PM has deflected, dismissed, obscured, omitted, denied, threatened and gaslit.
On Tuesday, he continued to display these behaviours.
His humble words and tears might have meant something if they’d been genuinely delivered by the PM in November, or last month when the horror of Ms Higgins’ treatment became public.
Now they’re just the hollow words of a desperate politician, scrambling for a sway out of his self-made predicament.
Paula Matthewson, a highly-respected political commentator, was media advisor to John Howard in the 1990s, before working a variety of communications, political and advocacy roles for almost three decades.
- For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 13 11 14