The Politics    Friday, December 17, 2021

Neutral territory

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to Emu Plains in Western Sydney today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to Emu Plains in Western Sydney today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Claims that Morrison has “neutralised” his Brittany Higgins problem are insulting

There are several disturbing things about The Daily Telegraph’s end-of-year grading of federal politicians – a piece of quasi-propaganda that would be laughable if it wasn’t so depressing. The first is that almost every Coalition minister receives a high score and glowing comments despite an objectively terrible year. (The fact that Health Minister Greg Hunt has been named “class dux” is all you need to know.) The next is that the prime minister – who has lied and bungled his way through 2021 – scored an “A”, thus confirming that the truth will play no role in the paper’s coverage of the coming election. But perhaps the most disgraceful is this, and it’s worth repeating in the so-called Canberra experts’ own words: “It has been a rollercoaster year for the PM that saw a number of mid-year struggles [Brittany Higgins, vaccine rollout] … neutralised or turned into net positives”. The vile framing – characterising a courageous woman who voiced her trauma as an issue that has been “neutralised” by Morrison – exemplifies what Higgins has alleged from the start: that the Liberal Party treated her as a “political problem” to be managed. It’s also untrue: far from being “neutralised”, Higgins has become a powerful advocate and an influential critic of the government. Morrison’s reputation with women, meanwhile, has slipped from bumbling bloke to outright bully, and his actions are still falling far short of what is required.

News Corp’s disgraceful language has been rightfully condemned, including by Higgins herself. “I’m a living breathing human being who had to fight tooth and nail to make it through the past 10 months,” she tweeted in response. “In the wake of the findings of the Jenkins review and the innumerable stories of abuse in Parliament House – to call this issue ‘neutralised’ is beyond insulting.” Independent candidate for Boothby Jo Dyer, who knows a fair bit about fighting for accountability, also took aim at the paper for using “a young woman’s personal trauma as a handy political gauge”. It’s shocking to think that this language made it to publication, without a single individual picking up on the implication that an alleged sexual assault survivor, who inspired women across the nation to speak up, was a problem to be “neutralised” – or that doing so was a good thing.

The Daily Telegraph’s framing of Higgins as a political challenge to be overcome is a logical extension of the revolting way the government has treated her, and the way it has treated its “women problem” more broadly. And, anyway, if one were to assess Morrison’s efforts in this area, he would be far from an “A”. The Tele is right in acknowledging that he “struggled” at first, from his “as a father” gaffe to his implication that women protesting were lucky not to be “met with bullets” (just a small sample of the many egregious missteps he took in the opening months of the year). The issue did eventually drift from the daily headlines. But at what point did Morrison “neutralise” this “struggle” of his?

The allegations may have slowed, but Morrison’s reputation with women has only continued to plummet. Since Higgins came forward, the public has come to learn of his bullying ways, whether against former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate, former crossbencher Julia Banks, or more recently Liberal women Gladys Berejiklian and Bridget Archer. At no point did Morrison appear to actually “get it”, despite multiple attempts at a reset. Even his response to the findings of the Jenkins review into parliamentary workplace culture was riddled with blame-shifting, with the PM still unable to accept accountability or even commit to implementing the recommendations in full. Many, including myself, were pleasantly surprised when he recently stood down Education Minister Alan Tudge, something he never did for Christian Porter, pending an investigation into allegations of abusive behaviour. (The Tele’s report card winkingly refers to allegations against Tudge as his being “sent to the principal’s office” over “improper extracurricular activities”.)

Morrison is going to have to do a lot more if he is going to assuage the fury women are feeling, especially because, in several cases, they are channelling their anger into independent campaigns across the country. But you can bet News Corp will be right there with him, insisting that the threat has been disarmed.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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