Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Government reset on women

All governments have horror stretches; the Morrison government is certainly no exception, as the past six weeks attest. But it is how governments deal with these political crises that can seal or save their fate.

The Americans have a colourful turn of phrase to describe how politicians in similar fixes often resort to “putting lipstick on a pig”. In other words, they do not address the underlying problems but rather hope a few cosmetic flourishes will persuade the public they are on to it.

So on Monday we had the “new look” Morrison cabinet rolled out. Except it wasn’t. There was not one new face to be seen anywhere. One old face, Melissa Price, was called back to the top table to boost the number of women in cabinet to seven. The fact she had been demoted after her less-than-impressive handling of the sensitive environment portfolio was ignored. Any concerns about competence were overridden by Morrison’s imperative to creating the appearance that girls rule.

Numbers of women in the ministry, of course, don’t achieve much unless there is also a shift in culture and policy. All the fancy nomenclature – minister for “Women’s Economic Security” or for “Women’s Safety” – will impress no one unless the discrimination in the criminal justice system against sexual assault victims is addressed. That would be a start. Then what about wage inequality, workplace bullying and harassment, paid leave for domestic violence victims, more generous parental leave and childcare?

But the giveaway that the prime minister was indulging in a desperate marketing exercise was the retention of Marise Payne as minister for Women. Not only has Payne been near invisible on issues raised by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegation that she was raped in the office of another female minister, Linda Reynolds, but Payne has been publicly half-hearted about them. The minister for Women has toed the Morrison line, opposing calls for an inquiry into historical rape allegations against Christian Porter. She defended the contortions the prime minister got himself into over delays to Phil Gaetjens’ inquiry about who knew what and when in the prime minister’s office in regard to the Higgins rape claims.

Payne will now co-chair with Morrison a ministerial taskforce prioritising women’s issues. In a seemingly interminable monologue opening his courtyard news conference, the prime minister ceded authority to Payne as “effectively amongst her female colleagues the prime minister for women, holding the prime ministerial responsibilities in this area as the minister for Women”.

When later challenged by a female journalist to explain what his role would be, Morrison had to backtrack his enthusiasm for Payne. He would remain the prime minister for everyone. The fact is Morrison calls all the shots and few could believe the latter-day outspokenness of ministers such as Karen Andrews on women’s discriminatory treatment would have happened without his approval and encouragement. Indeed, Andrews’ surprise promotion to the giant Home Affairs portfolio is further evidence of this. Will the PM now allow her to show a shred of humanity and release the Biloela Tamil family from their 1000-day detention in isolation on Christmas Island? Andrews says she’s yet to examine the case.

But it is the sad tale of Coalition boys behaving very badly in two jurisdictions that undermines Morrison’s claim that he has discovered the ability to feel empathy. Late last week, 9News in Brisbane broke the story that one of his backbenchers, Andrew Laming, had bullied two women constituents online for several years. One, Alix Russo, said she had been led to suicidal thoughts – so great was the anxiety his relentless and unfounded attacks on her had created. Another woman, Sheena Hewlett, believed she was being stalked by Laming when he asked her school for her timetable and hid in park bushes to take photos of her.

The 9News investigation had many social media postings as evidence of Laming’s cruel trolling. The network approached the PM for comment before airing its story. Morrison called Laming into his office, advised him to take sick leave for empathy training and demanded he apologise. The abject apology followed in parliament. Its sincerity was undercut the next day when Laming went on radio to say he wasn’t sure what he had to be sorry for.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese didn’t hold back. He said Laming “wasn’t a fit and proper person to continue as a member of parliament”. If “the Liberal Party wants to continue to associate themselves with him”, Albanese said, he looked forward to campaigning against Laming in the seat at the next election.

Things got worse for Laming when another woman, Crystal White, filed a formal complaint to police regarding him taking a picture of her as she bent over to fill a drinks fridge at the landscaping business where she worked. “Upskirting” is illegal in Queensland. White was supported by her boss, Sean Blinco, who witnessed the incident. Laming in his radio interview claimed the photo was “dignified”. Getting him to shut up has been a losing battle for the Coalition for years.

Morrison’s refusal to kick Laming out of the Canberra parliamentary Liberal Party is in stark contrast with the reaction of the Berejiklian government in New South Wales. That state government, like Morrison federally, governs with the slimmest of majorities. In fact, it had already fallen into minority status before accusations emerged of Nationals MP Michael Johnsen raping a sex worker and of tawdry behaviour at Parliament House in Macquarie Street. Johnsen had already outed himself as the politician accused of the sexual assault but denies it. He hasn’t denied sending lewd text messages to a sex worker or other shocking phone video evidence.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Johnsen’s behaviour was disgusting. She fully backed her deputy premier and Nationals leader, John Barilaro, when he called for the disgraced politician to quit parliament. Barilaro has no illusions that his call puts the government’s position in jeopardy. But in a standard that his federal counterparts are prepared to walk past, Barilaro said he would “rather do the right thing than worry about majority”. Midweek, Johnsen resigned from parliament. The “right thing” will now be put to the test in a hard-fought byelection in the highly marginal seat he held.

In a question that was always going to shut down Monday’s news conference, Channel Seven’s Mark Riley put it to Morrison that people would see a double standard at play. In other workplaces in Australia, someone who was found to have done the things Laming has “would have been sacked on the spot”. He reminded Morrison that if he used his status as prime minister to tell the Liberal Party he didn’t want Laming in parliament, “he’d be out”. Isn’t the reality that “you can’t afford to lose Andrew Laming because you would lose control of the house of reps?” Riley asked.

Morrison tried to make a virtue of the fact Laming will not contest the next election; Laming wouldn’t have won preselection anyway, something he was warned about at the weekend. The hitherto indulgent Queensland party machine has faced up to the fact, denied for 17 years, that Laming is more trouble than he is worth. Morrison said Laming “needs to come back with a completely different attitude and a completely different behaviour”.

That answer drew derision from Bill Shorten at Labor’s national conference this week, when he introduced Anthony Albanese as “the next prime minister of Australia”.  Shorten said Morrison was already an effective minority government in disarray: “One more scandal. One more boneheaded disgrace. One more backbench troll sent off to study how to impersonate a human being.”

Maybe Morrison fears that if he forced Laming onto the crossbench, he would be creating an enemy able to destroy his agenda, if not the government itself. Even so, with Craig Kelly having already deserted the good ship Morrison, Laming is still capable of holding the government to ransom for his vote in parliament. This is the case for every backbencher in a minority government. Labor’s Julia Gillard held on to the dubious Craig Thomson longer than was healthy for the credibility of her minority government. Morrison’s loyalty to Laming will be tested if he is still a Liberal MP when parliament returns for the budget session in six weeks’ time. Labor is sure to take every opportunity to paint Laming as a tainted vote, following the precedent set over Thomson by Tony Abbott when he was opposition leader.

The Morrison government will be looking very shabby when parliament resumes with Porter and Reynolds still in cabinet. They were too damaged to leave in their senior cabinet positions, but not damaged enough to demote to the backbench. The truth is neither would do the government the favour of voluntarily stepping down. Their stubbornness has merely left them as easy political targets and sure-fire distractions.

Labor is confident its two-day, uneventful, virtual national conference has given it a voter-friendly framework for the election. More helpful to its cause though is that history shows it is governments that lose elections, and this one is doing its best to prove the old adage.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "A sad tale of two cities".

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