Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Government’s bailout scuppered

The Morrison government resembles a sinking ship in one of those pirate movies where practically everything, including the cannons, is thrown overboard in an attempt to stay afloat. And there has been a good deal of ballast unloaded in this sitting fortnight of parliament.

Last week, the government ditched most of its ballyhooed industrial relations reforms, including measures to address wage theft. It surrendered without much of a fight for the numbers in the senate. It was itself an admission the government feared it was on the wrong side of the argument, especially in the context of community anxiety over insecure work and wage stagnation.

But this has been a more spectacular week of desperation politics, one marked by a dramatic and extraordinary news conference where the prime minister sought forgiveness from the women of the nation and to reinvent himself as a fellow traveller of contemporary mainstream feminists.

Before he publicly donned the sackcloth and ashes of a penitent, Morrison gave the joint party room a glimpse of the new man. He urged his MPs and senators to “stand up like they’ve never stood up before” to support Australia’s women. He acknowledged the past five weeks had been “a very traumatic time, particularly for the women in our party room”. He said, according to the official briefing, that he could see the trauma and distress on their faces.

The party room spokesman said a number of politicians, male and female, thanked the PM for his leadership and praised him for it. One, less impressed, said these supporters were mostly putting up their hands for any ministerial vacancies they discern are a distinct possibility soon.

Speculation over the future of Attorney-General Christian Porter was heightened when Morrison said this week that he has sought and received further advice from the solicitor-general pertaining to “ministerial standards”. Already Porter has been stripped of responsibility for the Federal Court, the forum for his defamation suit against the ABC. The PM’s comments were taken to mean that Porter may have to stand aside completely during that trial, or even that the unresolved historical rape allegations against him may put him in breach of the standards.

The future of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is looking even more shaky. Although she’s set to return to work in two weeks’ time, Reynolds has withdrawn from an important and high-profile international conference in Delhi in April. Her sick leave, ostensibly on her cardiologist’s advice, shielded Reynolds from scrutiny in senate estimates, but it didn’t shield her from Morrison’s angry response to her description of Brittany Higgins as a “lying cow” – a comment definitely out of sync with the government’s new ethos.

The prime minister is not untouched by all of this instability. His much-vaunted political nous, which was used to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat in the 2019 election, has clearly deserted him. Instead of making things better, his interventions have made them worse.

The most striking manifestation of lost mojo was his Tuesday media conference, which was called to try to regain control of the agenda and to reposition him and his government on the side of the legions of angry women demanding justice and respect. The explosion of this resentment was in no small way propelled by the prime minister’s own tone-deaf handling of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations.

But before the nation saw Morrison’s hand-wringing and tears live on national TV, his all-but-invisible minister for Women, Marise Payne, dumped plans to give domestic violence victims access to their superannuation savings late on Monday night during senate estimates. Payne said she was bowing to stakeholders’ advice and shelved the government’s almost manic desire to attack super savings. In reality, the politics of this particular policy had become awkward and was more ballast to jettison.

The day before, Labor’s Kristina Keneally had drawn attention to the vastly different treatment meted out by the government to Christian Porter and mainly female victims of domestic violence. Porter, she said, “can return to his job as attorney-general on a full-time salary but doing the part-time work … He will be given the time and the space on his full-time salary to fight his defamation case.”

Meanwhile, women who are victims of domestic violence, Keneally pointed out, have no access to paid leave and are told by the government they can dip into their own superannuation to fund their escape from an abusive partner. “These are people who barely have any savings,” she said. Keneally is angry about that imbalance and said women across Australia felt the same way.

The government’s super climbdown was largely lost in the uproar caused by damaging revelations of tawdry behaviour by Liberal staffers. Channel Ten described its whistleblower as a “Canberra insider”. His allegations, backed by a file of pictures of male staffers sharing “dick pics”, and evidence of one masturbating on the desk of a female MP, rattled Morrison and his office. Allegations of male sex workers being brought into Parliament House for MPs and of the prayer room being used regularly for sex were simply too sensational to ignore.

Government backbenchers are bracing for more allegations to surface. It is notable that so much is coming from inside the government, although the existence of a Facebook group of Labor female staffers spelling out how some have endured sexist, misogynistic and abusive treatment shows the toxic culture is by no means limited to the conservative side of politics.

But the fact is what has specifically emerged is from the Liberal side and is damaging. What makes the party vulnerable is its inability to increase the number of women preselected into winnable seats, which Morrison himself admits is due to the Liberals’ reluctance to get serious and impose quotas, as Labor and many corporations have done. But Morrison, it should be noted, was prime minister for almost a year before the last election and did nothing to ensure more women were advanced.

By the time the prime minister came to his Tuesday news conference, the senior staffer who shared images of his lewd act had been sacked and one of Morrison’s female cabinet ministers, Karen Andrews, had been on RN Breakfast to proclaim she had had a “gutful” of the treatment of women in Parliament House and elsewhere. Never before had we heard such strong language from Andrews, or indeed from her colleague Marise Payne. The radio show had been advised Andrews was available to come on. She made a repeat appearance that night on 7.30. According to Leigh Sales, the program approached every female cabinet minister, including Payne, for an interview but Andrews was the only one made available. Apparently, a very senior campaign director was at work behind the scenes.

Morrison tried to make up for a lost month of giving everyone the impression he thought the whole kerfuffle was a second-order issue that would go away if he just brazened it out, a strategy that blew up in his face. Morrison’s refusal to stand aside Porter or set up an inquiry into the attorney-general’s fitness for office became a lightning rod for protest at nationwide March 4 Justice rallies.

The prime minister said he acknowledged that many Australians, “especially women, believe that I have not heard them, and that greatly distresses me”. He claimed he had been doing a lot of listening, but his immediate predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, was unimpressed. He told Afternoon Briefing that Morrison was looking for sympathy when “the people who deserve sympathy and action are women who have been let down”.

Turnbull said the news conference, where no commitments to action were made, “tells you that ensuring women are respected in the workplace is not a priority of the government”. He accused Morrison and Porter of not reading Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Respect @ Work report, which was handed to them 14 months ago. Turnbull said if they had, they’d immediately implement three key recommendations in that report to amend legislation to impose a positive duty on employers to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.

Morrison admitted in parliament that implementing the report had taken too long. His embarrassment deepened when the attorney-general’s department told senate estimates Porter hadn’t discussed the report with them at all. The PM is now promising a response sooner rather than later.

Morrison’s misleading of the parliament over the Gaetjens inquiry and contradicting his own department head makes him look mean and tricky – traits that John Howard found in a 2001 byelection can be very costly. Just as damaging was his intemperate attack on Sky News journalist Andrew Clennell, who, in light of the Channel Ten revelations, dared to suggest the prime minister had lost control of his ministerial staff. Clennell riled Morrison when he suggested the standards in his workplace were better than Morrison’s at Parliament House.

The prime minister claimed that “right now… [in] your organisation” there is a complaint against a person for “harassment of a woman in a woman’s toilet”. People in glass houses “should be careful”, Morrison said. So, a prime minister who was not told of a rape in a minister’s office was told of a blow-up between two News Corp gallery journalists and he’d filed it away with an implicit warning he would retaliate in a similar way against other critics.

Later that night he deeply regretted his reference after News Corp denied it had received such a complaint and accused him of breaching its staff’s privacy and confidentiality.

The ship was taking more water.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "ScoMo’s bailout scuppered".

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