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This weekend marks six months since the Brittany Higgins allegations broke. How much political capital has Scott Morrison expended on issues of concern to women, particularly their safety and economic security? By Kristine Ziwica.

Scott Morrison and the women’s movement

Australia’s minister for Foreign Affairs and minister for Women, Senator Marise Payne, delivers Australia’s video contribution to the United Nations Generation Equality Forum.
Credit: Generation Equality Forum

In early July, world leaders, corporate executives and activists convened in Paris to tackle gender equality at the United Nations Generation Equality Forum. The forum, co-hosted by Mexico and France, was billed as “the biggest global gathering to tackle gender equality in a generation”.

The previous global gathering of this size was the historic Beijing World Conference on Women a little more than 25 years ago. It was in Beijing that Hillary Clinton, then the first lady of the United States, famously delivered her iconic “women’s rights are human rights” speech. At the time Clinton’s claim was considered so audacious she was urged to soften her language. Nonetheless, by the end of the summit almost every country in the world had committed to the “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life”.

At this year’s summit, the international community once again gathered to recommit to the global fight for gender equality. It was a critical time: in every country, women have borne disproportionate social and economic impacts of the pandemic. Experts have cautioned that it could set back women’s rights by a generation or more.

Against this backdrop, it was hoped that a collective, international push would help ameliorate some of those impacts and assist collective action.

But where was Australia?

Australia’s minister for Women and minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, didn’t issue a press release about the forum. Nor did she mention it on any of her social media channels. Likewise, Australia’s ambassador for gender equality, Julie-Ann Guivarra, was publicly silent. The Saturday Paper had to go in search of information about Australia’s contribution to the forum. What was eventually provided was not particularly inspiring.

At the eleventh hour, just days before the forum began, the Morrison government submitted the previously released – and highly controversial – women’s budget statement from May alongside a poor-quality, prerecorded video of Marise Payne. The calibre of contribution was underscored by its placement. Payne’s video was played on the second day of the forum, two hours and seven minutes into an event on violence against women, after a video statement from the president of Kazakhstan.

Compare Australia’s engagement with that of the United States: under former president Donald Trump, the US refused to engage with the forum; but under Joe Biden, the US came to the party with a submission developed by the administration’s new Gender Policy Council. Sarah Hendriks, director of the policy and intergovernmental division of UN Women, which organised the forum, told The New York Times it “was the strongest the US came in years”. Vice-President Kamala Harris had a high-profile speaking role at the forum’s invitation-only opening ceremony, where Australia was not represented.

Many other countries also rose to the occasion. In total, political leaders, corporate executives and activists unveiled $40 billion to advance gender equality – reported to be the largest dollar amount ever dedicated to the issue.

According to Bronwyn Tilbury of the Melbourne-based International Women’s Development Agency, which was elected to co-lead one of the forum’s six “action coalitions” on feminist movements and leadership, her organisation had been talking to the Australian government for more than a year and encouraging it to contribute to the forum.

“For a while there it looked like they might make no commitment at all, so we were glad that Australia wasn’t entirely absent,” Tilbury says. “But in truth, they could have done better. You look at some of the commitments other countries made, and there is simply no comparison.

“This would have been disappointing at any time, but particularly given this is a once-in-a-generation moment, and in light of the very real effects of the pandemic on women. These kinds of things shine a light on where priorities lie, and it’s clear that gender equality isn’t receiving the kind of political will from the Morrison government that’s needed to tackle gender equality in this generation.”

Speaking on background, a member of the summit’s organising committee in New York told The Saturday Paper that it was telling the Australian government wasn’t particularly engaged. Australia did not submit a letter of intent to lead any of the action coalitions. By contrast, forum organisers say there was “a clamouring” from other heads of state wanting to demonstrate leadership – so much so that they had to turn down more than a dozen who requested speaking slots at various events.

“Australia decided to take a backwards step and let the thing flow, and then, at the last minute, quite reluctantly, sign up to some of it,” says Sally Moyle, an honorary associate professor at the Gender Institute of the Australia National University and former assistant secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“Australia didn’t see itself as enough of a leader on the world stage to shape this process,” she says. “It’s disappointing that, as a result, we’ve lost some political capital internationally in this space.”

Many concerned experts and campaigners tell The Saturday Paper that Australia’s poor showing at the Generation Equality Forum is emblematic of the lack of political capital the Morrison government is expending on issues of concern to women, in particular their safety and economic security.

They note that Australia’s ranking in the Global Gender Gap Index, which measures the gender-based gaps of 156 countries among four key dimensions (economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment) has been plummeting for nearly two decades. When the index began in 2006, Australia ranked 15th. Australia has now fallen 35 places to 50th, putting it behind the vast majority of comparable OECD nations.

Australia’s poor showing at the Generation Equality Forum, they say, will do little to reverse that trend. Nor will the Morrison government’s series of high-profile announcements in the past six months in relation to women that, they claim, have been characterised by a pattern of big press conferences followed by silence or obfuscation when it comes to delivery.

 

It is six months this weekend since reports first broke that Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins was allegedly raped in Parliament House before the 2019 federal election. The time since has been a whirlwind for those who have long advocated for gender equality in Australia.

In March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed Senator Jane Hume as the first dedicated minister for Women’s Economic Security, part of a wider cabinet reshuffle that saw a phalanx of female ministers installed as part of a “women’s taskforce” co-chaired by Minister for Women Marise Payne, and Morrison. Senator Anne Ruston was also given the new title of minister for Women’s Safety.

In April, the Prime Minister’s Office released a media statement saying that women’s economic security would be on the agenda of national cabinet on July 9, and that “as part of that discussion, national cabinet will also consider establishing whether we embark on a national plan process for women’s economic security”. The “national plan” would follow the model of the now decade-old national plan to reduce violence against women and their children.

Also in April, Morrison fronted a press conference to announce the government’s 13 months overdue response to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Respect @ Work sexual harassment inquiry and its 55 recommendations, which was commissioned in 2018 after #MeToo first went viral. The Morrison government also opened up consultations for a second national plan to reduce violence against women and their children and promised a Women’s Safety Summit would be held on July 29 and 30.

Of sexual harassment, Morrison said, “It denies women not only their personal security, but their economic security by not being safe at work.” He described Jenkins’ inquiry as a “game changer”.

In May, in the face of unrelenting pressure following historical rape allegations against Attorney-General Christian Porter, which he denies, the Morrison government reinstated the women’s budget statement. Released alongside the budget, the statement pledged a $3.4 billion investment in promoting women’s rights “so that women, right across the country, can be safe from violence, economically secure, realise their potential and enjoy good health”.

Not everything was simple, however. While Morrison and the new attorney-general, Michaelia Cash, led the media to conclude the government had accepted all of Jenkins’ 55 recommendations “in part or in principle”, the actual full response to the Respect @ Work inquiry wasn’t made available until two hours after the press conference, making it difficult for journalists to interrogate that claim.

When greater scrutiny of the Respect @ Work response was possible, it soon became clear the Morrison government had accepted only 40 of the 55 recommendations. Among those it had not accepted: the most important, principal recommendation for a “positive duty” on employers to take meaningful action to prevent sexual harassment. Jenkins described the failure to adopt that recommendation as a significant “missed opportunity”.

Then, at a senate estimates hearing in June, under sustained questioning from Labor Senator Jenny McAllister, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham conceded that the Morrison government had cobbled together the women’s budget statement in less than a month. What’s more, in the intervening weeks since the budget was delivered, no shortage of women’s organisations criticised the statement as, among other things, “no game changer”.

Analysis by the Australian Council of Social Service found the 2021-22 budget spent 30 times more on tax cuts that disproportionately benefited rich men than women’s economic security. The National Foundation for Australian Women found “there was little significant reform offered”.

In a notable appearance on the ABC’s Q&A budget special, days after the budget, Mel Pannack, an older woman who has personally experienced economic insecurity and homelessness, put a question to the panel, which included Senator Jane Hume.

“This budget is said to be a women’s budget, but most women would say not really,” said Pannack. “It is just a drop, a penny in the ocean ...

“Please, no more spin,” Pannack then pleaded, as she asked that more be done to support older women, who are among the most vulnerable.

In response, Hume spruiked the government’s new Family Home Guarantee program, which she suggested meant a single mother could “buy a house in Melbourne for $600,000”.

That suggestion prompted both gasps and floods of laughter from fellow panellists and the audience. Jacqui Lambie could be heard saying “Jesus Christ”, while another panellist, Greens’ Senator Larissa Waters, made some very salient points questioning how few, if any, single parents the program, which allows single parents to buy a home with as little as a 2 per cent deposit, would actually help.

Following this, on July 7, Marise Payne, in her capacity as minister for Women, announced the Morrison government was defunding the Security4Women Alliance, one of the six national women’s alliances that has been dedicated to raising the issue of women’s economic security for more than two decades

Two days later, on July 9, the national cabinet meeting at which women’s economic security was promised to be on the agenda came and went. Neither Hume nor Payne would respond to The Saturday Paper’s numerous requests for confirmation that women’s economic security was actually discussed. The Prime Minister’s Office would say only that, “It is a longstanding practice not to disclose information about the operation and business of the cabinet.” A week later, the Morrison government announced the Women’s Safety Summit would be delayed until September due to the growing Covid-19 crisis in Sydney.

 

“What strikes me about all of this is the breathtaking cynicism at each step of the way,” says the ANU’s Sally Moyle. “If you step through that process, it’s breathtaking: they throw a few crumbs, make a few announcements, and hope that the caravan moves on. And then they just defer, remain silent, or refuse to engage. It seems like it really was all about the announcement, but if you want to make change, throwing a few crumbs and hoping the girls will move on just isn’t going to cut it.”

Tanya Plibersek, the shadow minister for Women, makes a similar point. “The tens of thousands of women who marched for justice have had it with the spin and stalling,” she says. “The prime minister needs to take this seriously and stop treating Australian women as a political problem he needs to fix.

“If the government really considered women’s economic security a priority, they wouldn’t have stalled on the national cabinet discussion or defunded the standalone alliance for women’s economic security.”

Judith van Unen, the co-founder of the Security4Women Alliance, says the defunding of her organisation comes at a time when the issue of gender equality is on the agenda as never before. “It just seems grubby,” she says. “There is a silencing by stealth, not inviting you to a critical meeting or not renewing your funding.”

Outrage at some of this is reflected in the polls. The Australian Election Study shows that the female primary vote for the Liberal–National Coalition is at its lowest point in three decades. As Sarah Cameron, a lecturer in politics at the school of social and political sciences at the University of Sydney, says: “The Liberal Party ignores that at its peril.”

According to the latest Essential Research polling, there have been some substantial changes in the way women under 55 are voting. Support for Labor among women 18-34 has increased from 35 per cent to 41 per cent. Support for the Liberal Party among that cohort has dropped from 27 per cent to 24 per cent. Among women aged 35 to 54, support for the Liberal Party has fallen from a high in October 2020 of 40 per cent to 29 per cent. Support for Labor in that cohort has grown from 34 per cent to 38 per cent.

“I am loath, particularly after the last election, to use polling as a predictive tool,” says Peter Lewis, director of Essential Research. “But where we are at the moment, there is a gender gap in stated future voting intention, which does mean that it is fertile ground for good policy from the opposition. But also, if you take that view, an opportunity for the incumbent government to recognise that and develop its own good policy.”

Asked whether the Morrison government had expended enough political capital to re-engage non-male voters, Lewis doubts there is enough political capital in the bank.

“You look at the decision to put Porter in the house again [as leader], and there is almost a tin ear to how people exercised by the events of the first half of this year would read that,” he says. “It does send the message that they think there was a crisis, and they think they’ve managed it and moved on – they don’t really need to worry about what the drivers of that crisis were.”

It is not one crisis, though. It is years of neglect and indifference. The past 12 months have just made that neglect even clearer than before. 

 

This is the third in a three-part series on women’s economic security, supported by the Melbourne Press Club’s Michael Gordon Fellowship for social justice journalism. Part one covered older women and homelessness, while part two discussed the legal fight to close the gender pay gap.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "Scott Morrison and the women’s movement".

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Kristine Ziwica is a Melbourne-based journalist.