The Politics    Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Tame impaler

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Grace Tame owes the PM nothing, least of all a smile

Outgoing Australian of the Year Grace Tame has finished off her brilliant tenure by engaging in the time-honoured Australian tradition of refusing to show deference to politicians – specifically, Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In a Canberra photo op that has been dubbed “awkward”, “tense” and “uncomfortable” (gentle euphemisms for “ice cold”), Tame made her displeasure with the PM known, refusing to smile as she shook his hand before staring frostily into the cameras beside him. Critics of Tame have already begun to emerge, including Liberal senator Hollie Hughes, who labelled her behaviour “immature”, and Liberal senator James McGrath, who called it “partisan, political and childish”, prompting his social media followers to lay into her. Commentator Peter van Onselen, friend to women when it suits him, was also quick off the block with his own criticism. But what exactly is immature or partisan about refusing to smile beside a man who has repeatedly disrespected you and your cause – and by extension, women and survivors everywhere?

Tame owes Morrison absolutely nothing – least of all a smile. As many have noted, the criticism has more than a hint of “women should smile more”, and an underlying expectation that women be conciliatory and polite even when facing those who disrespect them. But Tame, in particular, is under no obligation to show Morrison good manners. While the prime minister has been publicly polite to her, saying all the right words about believing survivors and listening to women, his actions over the past year have consistently proven to be the opposite. It is Morrison, not Tame, who has been political and partisan in the way he has engaged with issues of abuse and assault, refusing (with one notable recent exception) to believe women when their allegations are levelled against his own MPs. It is a point Tame herself made, back when Morrison elevated Christian Porter to again fill the role of leader of the House of Representatives: actions speak louder than words.

Should Tame, a woman who was awarded Australian of the Year for speaking up, have simply sucked it up and been polite to the PM, as van Onselen has written? Citizens – whether high profile or not – do not have to be deferential to the PM just because he is the PM; surely, given everything that has happened this year, that would have been the more disingenuous way for Tame to behave. As philosopher Damon Young tweeted, civility has its place in society, but it’s also often used as a “proxy for morality” and to “silence victims”, ensuring that “unpleasant accusations” are swept out of sight. “If only [conservatives] were as concerned with ethics as they are with etiquette,” he added. 

And it’s not as if Morrison has always shown civility to those he dislikes, with countless examples on offer of the prime minister behaving petulantly – whether it’s turning his back on a woman speaking in parliament or refusing to shake the hand of his opponent.

It’s no surprise that the critics have come quickly for Tame over this; conservative criticism of the child sexual assault survivor has grown rather loud in the final weeks and months of her tenure, with figures such as News Corp’s Janet Albrechtsen implying she has been undermining her own cause with her forthrightness. Nine yesterday even published a piece questioning the unusually “combative” relationship Tame had with the federal government, and contrasting her with the much more conciliatory survivor and 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty.

Many others have praised Tame, whether for being her authentic self or for perfectly representing the national mood. Speaking to the National Press Club today, Labor leader Anthony Albanese appeared to give a subtle nod to her display, paying tribute to the outgoing Australian of the Year for those very qualities. “I want to take a moment to thank Grace Tame for her quite extraordinary courage and her fierce advocacy,” he said. Much of today’s praise also notes the “enduring respect” Tame has accrued, in line with the idea that respect must be earned.

The nation has been incredibly fortunate to have an Australian of the Year like Grace Tame. She was able to spark a long overdue movement, and was courageous enough to call out the most powerful person in the country when he paid only lip service to her cause. She has surely earned our respect. Perhaps the nation will be more willing to show respect to Morrison when he, too, does something worthy of it.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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