The Politics    Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Bilge artist

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison on ABC’s 7.30 last night. Image via ABC

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on ABC’s 7.30 last night. Image via ABC

Morrison’s claim that he is “standing up for women” is repugnant

It’s little wonder that Scott Morrison spent so long avoiding 7.30, and that he refused to commit to appearing on the show again during the election campaign. Last night’s interview was a train wreck, with an exasperated Leigh Sales pressing an evasive Morrison on everything from “own goals” to flood relief to Brian Houston, not to mention the “range” of people who have laid devastating claims against him. All those people, Morrison said of his growing list of critics, had an “axe to grind”. By far the most ludicrous moment came when the PM was challenged on his contentious takeover of the NSW Liberal preselections. The “principal reason” he did it was to “stand up for” a woman – Environment Minister Sussan Ley being one of the three sitting MPs who was under threat from factions. “I’m very serious about having great women in my ranks,” Morrison said, noting that half of the 12 hand-picked candidates were women. The claim is laughable. If there’s anyone Morrison was trying to save it was factional consigliore Alex Hawke in the seat of Mitchell, and his overarching aim was to maintain control of the numbers in the party. At the end of the day, the only person Scott Morrison truly stands up for is Scott Morrison.

The idea that Morrison’s NSW preselection takeover was about him being some kind of feminist ally, rather than ensuring his own factional allies were selected, is patently ludicrous and quite frankly insulting. In a statement to the ABC, outgoing Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells labelled the claim “bilge water”, and pointed out that the PM was “using the gender card” to defend his undemocratic actions. (Former Liberal MP Julia Banks tweeted something similar.) And yet the PM’s bizarre justification has been covered uncritically in many corners of the media, going far beyond the usual suspects. While some outlets noted the questionable context of the late-stage intervention, much of the coverage fails to note that two of the three sitting MPs Morrison intervened to save were men, one a key ally and the person responsible for delaying the votes until an intervention became necessary. Speaking on RN Breakfast, the AFR’s Phil Coorey did acknowledge that standing up for women wasn’t the “only force” at play here, but he repeated the idea that it was a “driving force”, parroting Morrison’s line that he has more women in his cabinet than any other in history. (In reality, he has merely matched Kevin Rudd’s 2013 rate.)

Did anyone take Morrison’s “standing up for women” claim – a cheap attempt to address his “women problem” and defend his autocratic behaviour all at once – seriously? Perhaps not; perhaps this was why media outlets felt no need to offer any pushback as they quoted him on it. But it’s worth looking at in detail. There’s no doubt that Morrison was intent on protecting sitting ministers, and there is maybe something to be said for doing so, with reports of some nasty factionalism and branch-stacking going on. But the idea that this was about Ley’s gender, in anything other than a tokenistic sense, is a lame excuse for a 12-seat intervention. Why, if gender is so important, was longstanding senator Fierravanti-Wells passed over for Jim Molan on the NSW Senate ticket (a separate but no doubt interrelated matter)?

And when it comes to arguments that those hand-picked candidates are 50 per cent women and – as the PM was quick to add – highly diverse, the facts tell a different story. Of the nine new captain’s picks, only one woman was preselected into a safe Liberal seat, in Hughes (where Morrison previously intervened to save sitting MP Craig Kelly). Women were also picked for Warringah and Parramatta, but these seats are more of a stretch for the Liberals, while men were picked for the much more gettable Greenway and Eden-Monaro. (Most of the “multicultural” picks our definitely-not-racist PM referred to were slated for unwinnable Labor-held seats.) If Morrison is so interested in getting more women into parliament, as he claimed last night, why not nominate all women? Of course, this is the party that consistently pushes back against the idea of quotas, arguing that democracy and merit are too important. This was the Liberals’ chance to actually even up their current ratio (under current Liberal practice, women are not expected to reach parity in parliament for decades).

It would almost have been acceptable if Morrison had just said this was about seeing off a far-right takeover, which he did imply. But to try to claim, at the eleventh hour, that this is about protecting and promoting women is transparently, insultingly fictitious. This is the man who famously said that he wanted to see women rise, but not at the expense of men. Fortunately for all those hoping to see more women in parliament, there are a few women in with a shot in previously safe Liberal-held seats. Unfortunately for Morrison, many of them are not running for the Liberal Party.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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