Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison’s problem with women

All of a sudden, the Morrison government is looking very vulnerable. And the prime minister knows it. Like all governments staggering towards the political abyss, it is not only events beyond their control at play but also, more importantly, their misreading of what needs to be done.

The March 4 Justice rallies around the country are the most dramatic case in point. But Australia will also be facing another “turning point” in two weeks’ time when the JobKeeper wage subsidies cease and the JobSeeker support payments for the unemployed are slashed to below poverty levels. All while the pandemic remains a real and potent danger with the promised rollout of vaccines stalling and raising doubts over assumptions of economic recovery.

In his hardest-hitting speech since becoming opposition leader, Labor’s Anthony Albanese brutally summed up the prime minister’s predicament. The prime minister, he said, has “not so much a tin ear as a wall of concrete”. The context was Scott Morrison’s refusal to attend the biggest rally seen outside Parliament House in decades. An absence made all the more dismissive by not one of his cabinet ministers bothering to show up either, including Minister for Women Marise Payne. Their notable absences point to an edict from the top.

Some Coalition backbenchers were dismayed by this display of arrogance. Queensland Liberal senator Gerard Rennick, one of the government’s most conservative members, told Sky News he thought that Payne at least should have attended the march. A couple of dozen Coalition members and senators defied the negative zeitgeist and along with Greens, independent and Labor politicians, walked down to the rally. There they heard what Albanese told his party room was one of the “bravest speeches I have heard in my lifetime”.

The speaker was Brittany Higgins, the former Liberal staffer who alleges she was raped by a co-worker in then Defence Industry minister Linda Reynolds’ office in 2019. Higgins’ arrival was met with sustained applause and tears from the crowd. She urged other victims of sexual violence to “take ownership of your story and free yourself from the stigma of shame”.

A thousand kilometres south, at the Hobart March 4 Justice rally, Australian of the Year Grace Tame had the same defiant message. Both young women’s courage has severely disrupted the government’s preferred political agenda during the past month and goes a long way to explain one of the government’s worst results in Newspoll since the 2019 election. Labor is now leading 52-48 in the two-party preferred poll. Just as ominously, the government has slumped to equal place on the primary vote with Labor, on 39 per cent.

Higgins and Tame’s outspoken advocacy gave even more potency to the historical rape allegation levelled against Attorney-General Christian Porter. He strenuously denies the allegation, and on the day of the nationwide rallies announced he was suing the ABC and its investigative journalist Louise Milligan for defamation in the Federal Court.

After March 4 Justice organiser Janine Hendry declined late invitations from Morrison and Payne to meet with a small delegation in their offices, the prime minister was left looking for another way into the story. Hendry explained her refusal on having “read the room”. Women around the country had let her know strongly that it is Morrison who should come and listen to what they have to say.

“In reality we’ve come to the prime minister’s front door,” Hendry told several members of the federal parliamentary press gallery in interviews. “I’d like to see him walk across the threshold and come and see us.” But unlike John Howard, who fronted an angry pro-gun rally when he was introducing stringent reforms after the Port Arthur massacre, Morrison wouldn’t face the music.

Instead, Morrison arranged with the speaker to make a statement at the beginning of Monday’s question time, giving the Labor leader little prior notice. In his six-minute prepared spiel, the prime minister defended his government’s recent responses. But in a maladroit comparison he said, “Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country.” That drew loud interjections from the opposition benches.

Natasha Stott Despoja, Australia’s representative on the United Nations committee dealing with discrimination against women, told the ABC she was “quite stunned” when she heard the remarks. Greens leader Adam Bandt said it was “unbelievable Scott Morrison said to the marchers they should be glad we didn’t shoot you. He just doesn’t get it”.

The issue, of course, was not Australia’s democracy but rather, as Brittany Higgins told the Canberra rally, how the prime minister and others used phrases such as “due process” and “presumption of innocence” while failing to acknowledge how “the justice system is notoriously stacked against victims of sexual assault”.

Just as Australia’s defamation laws are notoriously stacked against the public’s right to know. Ironically something Christian Porter admitted at the National Press Club in November 2019. “Defamation laws no longer strike the perfect balance between public interest journalism and protecting individuals from reputational harm,” the attorney-general said at the time.

While Porter’s high-powered lawyers say his defamation action will allow the ABC “to plead truth … and prove the allegations”, analysis by Michael Bachelard in The Sydney Morning Herald says Australia’s defamation law is a very poor way to establish truth. “This is a law, both in its arcane conception and in its application by judges that strongly favours rich plaintiffs and deters honest reporting of current events,” he wrote. Bachelard concluded defamation law puts damaged reputations well above the public’s right to know.

Porter’s choice of the Federal Court is both problematic for him and testimony to his intimate knowledge of defamation law and practice in the different jurisdictions.

As is his right, he has chosen the jurisdiction he sees as the most likely to give him a favourable outcome. But it is problematic because, as attorney-general, he is responsible for that court, the appointment of judges and their promotion on the bench.

Morrison, on the advice of the solicitor-general, says that when Porter returns from stress leave, he “will not perform certain functions of his office that may relate to the Federal Court or the ABC”. Morrison, using a formula beloved of Howard at his most unctuous, says this is “in an abundance of caution”. And so, we have the chief law officer of the land still claiming the title and the salary while not performing a huge and important whack of his portfolio. But at some stage, unless he leaves the portfolio, it can be reasonably assumed he will resume responsibility for the court and its appointees. According to legal sources, the conflict of interest has not been resolved.

Porter’s office says he will return to work on March 31, a day scheduled for the attorney-general to meet with his state and territory counterparts. On the agenda is the stalled defamation law reforms, a key aim of which has been to correct the imbalance Porter acknowledged in his 2019 Press Club speech in favour of the public’s right to know. However Porter’s commitment to that cause now is at the very least open to question.

Labor’s shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, QC, who specialised in defamation cases before entering parliament, says Morrison stripping Porter of some of his duties proves the point: the attorney-general can’t do the job while this cloud hangs over him. In fact, on Wednesday in parliament, Morrison said that preparing a response to the 12-month old Respect @ Work report will now fall to Porter’s assistant minister, Amanda Stoker, instead of the returning attorney-general. Again questions are raised how Porter can also carry out his duty in resolving any complaints against judges and commissioners of a sexual misbehaviour nature.

Dreyfus says Porter should step aside and be subjected to an independent inquiry to determine whether he is a fit and proper person to be the nation’s first law officer. A petition signed by 135,000 Australians gathered at Monday’s rallies – and in the lead-up to them – also calls for such an inquiry.

The penny has finally dropped in the government’s ranks that it is not only tertiary-educated women who are exercised by the toxic misogynist culture that is now seen to be endemic in our political structures. It is across the board and not confined to the government parties. While Morrison and one of his Liberal MPs, Nicolle Flint, who is quitting in disgust at the next election, did their best to shift the blame this week, none of their finger-pointing will resolve the Higgins matter, or end the Porter imbroglio.

First-term Liberal MP Celia Hammond, former vice-chancellor of the University of Notre Dame Australia in Perth, gave the party room a reality check. In a forceful speech she told her colleagues, “We need to act on the underlying problems in the treatment of women rather than engaging in political dispute.” The Coalition could start by lifting female representation from just 26 per cent to closer to Labor’s 46 per cent. But so far cracking that concrete ceiling has been beyond them.

Morrison tried to gee-up a glum party gathering by reminding them the Coalition had been on a “narrow path to victory before ... and we’ve walked it together”. The prime minister conceded “the path is now narrow so we must watch out for each other”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Cracks in the wall of concrete".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.