Content Warning: contains discussion of sexual assault and rape

I am completely and utterly disgusted.

It’s been over a month since it became clear that the workplace culture within Canberra, but particularly in the Liberal party, is toxic towards women. Since then, the Prime Minister seems to have been scrambling to manage what he sees as bad press. In my view, he has not been at all successful in this endeavour.

He’s the marketing man wanting to maintain good press until the next election in the hopes he’ll keep his hands on the Prime Ministership. His failure stems from a complete misunderstanding of the issue and a fundamental lack of empathy.

He never had empathy for refugees when he was Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. He never had empathy for drought-stricken farmers. He never had empathy for bushfire victims. He never had empathy for women giving birth on the side of Barton Highway. He never had empathy for the millions of Australians affected by Covid-19. He never had empathy for people in aged care. 

And now, he’s made it clear that he doesn’t have empathy for women.

A Cabinet reshuffle was announced on Monday the 29th of March in response to allegations of the government failing women. At the very least, I expected Scott Morrison to remove from Cabinet those who have been at the centre of recent scandals. Scotty from Marketing should be able to do that. Once again, I am left disappointed and angry at this government’s complete disregard for women.

Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds have been shuffled into new portfolios, maintaining their seats in Cabinet. Mr. Porter has been in the news recently due to allegations that in 1988, as a 17-year old, he raped a 16 year old girl. But there have been a string of other allegations made against him for his mistreatment of women. In 2017, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had a meeting with Mr. Porter in which he warned his colleague about his “unacceptable conduct” in the company of young women.

Meanwhile, Linda Reynolds has come under fire for describing Brittany Higgins as a “lying cow” in response to claims that she had not offered support services to Higgins who was allegedly raped in her office. Politicians who have been exposed for such bad behaviour should at the very least be resigned to the back bench. I thought that was “Saving Your Own Arse In A Scandal 101”. 

The press conference also saw questions around Queensland MP Andrew Laming brought up at least twice. Mr Laming’s alleged inappropriate actions towards three women has been reprimanded on a separate occasion by treasurer Josh Frydenberg who said Mr. Laming’s behaviour was “demeaning to women”. Yet, the response by Mr. Morrison and the (“Prime”) Minister for Women Marise Payne at the press conference completely missed the mark as well. Both simply expressed the sentiment that Mr. Laming was making a great sacrifice by not re-contesting in the next election. Of course, there is no recognition of the difficulty women working in Parliament may face in having to share a workplace with a man such as Laming.

I believe this, and the maintenance of Mr. Porter and Ms. Payne in Cabinet positions suggests that Scott Morrison lacks regard for women and the severity of the issues being presented. For this government, failing to do what, in my view, is the bare minimum, is very revealing. 

Their coalition counterparts in the Nationals  are reviewing the codes of conduct of all of their state party branches. And in 2018 when Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister, he tried to address some of the behaviour within parliament with the infamous “bonk ban”. Meanwhile, Mr. Morrison has created a few new positions in cabinet and a women’s task force – which seems more like virtue signaling than real action on the issues. 

It’s important to recognise that the Labor Party isn’t perfect either. There are allegations of abuse and sexual harassment in the Labor Party as well, including a historic allegation against former leader Bill Shorten, who remained in that role while police investigated allegations against him. 

However, the contrast in response from the leaders of the two major parties is astounding. Anthony Albanese (leader of the Labor Party), has recognised that issues of sexism and harassment are an issue throughout society. He encouraged people to come forward, explaining that since many allegations made so far were anonymous, they were difficult to look into. The Labor Party has set up a new code of conduct specifically for issues around sexual harassment and bullying. Importantly, it allows people to seek advice independent from the party.

For the Liberal Party, it appears that any complaints against an MP or one of their staffers must be made to their political office directly. Scott Morrison has said WA Liberal MP Celia Hammond will lead a process to identify ways to improve the environment in Parliament House. The Australian has reported this could include referring any alleged sexual assaults immediately to the department so there could be an “arm’s length arrangement” for the individual to be supported outside of their office.

But Labor took action last year which meant they could approve their new code of conduct in February.

The question is, where do we go from here? I would like to think the only place we can go is up. But, while we have people in power whose only concern is maintaining their position, this might not be possible. I would reiterate Senator (and my personal idol) Penny Wong’s words: “the women of Australia have long memories”. I think it would be foolish of Scott Morrison to think he can do some marketing magic to get himself out of this dreary pit of his own creation.

Declaration: Linda Pickering is a member of the WA Labor Party

Words by Linda Pickering

By Pelican Magazine

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