The Politics    Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Mean boy?

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The repeated reports of Morrison’s bullying behaviour reveal a disturbing pattern

It was interesting timing for the outgoing Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells to drop her bombshells slamming the PM, not long after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had dropped his budget over in the other chamber. (A vote-buying, bribe-filled, pork-barrelling, “absolute disgrace” of a budget, according to headlines today.) The lateness of the hour meant that Fierravanti-Wells’ speech – which included the kinds of allegations of bullying and insincerity we’ve long heard about Scott Morrison, along with a shocking new charge of racism – did not make the morning papers, prompting cries from some that the media was ignoring them. This was unfair, as many were quick to point out, as the papers had already gone to print by that time, and most were covering the story online. It remains to be seen, however, whether the allegations will receive the focus they deserve, or the weeks of relentless attention given to the factional bullying “allegations” levelled against Labor’s “mean girls”. That’s not an observation for cynical “both sides” reasons. Fierravanti-Wells’ statement is yet another substantive, on-the-record allegation against the prime minister, the man who leads and hopes to continue leading the country, and against whom allegations of ruthlessness are stacking up. But is The Australian going to label him a “mean boy”?

There’s no doubt this is going to launch a fresh game of tit for tat, as people argue over what kind of allegations are newsworthy, mostly in line with their own political biases. Journalists suggesting that Morrison critics who didn’t believe the Kitching skirmish was worthy of extended inquiry were “hypocrites” will no doubt feel vindicated when we “hypocrites” again start asking questions of Morrison. Fierravanti-Wells’ claims bear many similarities to those that were being pushed by anonymous allies in the wake of Kitching’s death: they seem to have a lot do with factional issues, with someone who has or is about to lose preselection, and with people hoping to do as much internal damage to their party as possible. But there are also some key differences. Fierravanti-Wells is making these allegations herself, on the public record. She is clear in what she is alleging, and it’s not “ostracisation”. (She even suggests that there are statutory declarations to back up the claim that Morrison made racist comments about not preselecting someone who was Lebanese.) She’s not trying to secure a Senate spot for her faction; she’s already lost it, she said, and is simply seeking to put some facts on the record. She’s talking about the character of the nation’s leader.

But perhaps the most crucial difference of all is this: Fierravanti-Wells’ comments are part of a disturbing pattern of allegations against Morrison. Obviously these allegations deserve our scrutiny. There’s no doubt, as the PM said as he tried to wave them away this morning, that Fierravanti-Wells is furious over being relegated to an unwinnable third spot on the NSW ticket. But the reason Morrison critics find these allegations so newsworthy, so believable and so concerning is that they form part of a pattern. From Julia Banks to Gladys Berejiklian to Bridget Archer to Christine Holgate to Jacqui Lambie to, now, Pauline Hanson, Morrison has been accused of acting like a bully towards women again and again. This is the guy known for “yelling and thumping the table” in meetings, who likes to tell women trying to question him that he is the prime minister.

Throughout today’s interviews, Morrison did his best to dismiss Fierravanti-Wells’ claims, employing his usual bag of tricks (along with some strange new ones). “Connie”, he said, once again using a woman’s first name, was obviously “disappointed” that her time in parliament was coming to an end. “Connie” had said similar things about Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, he insisted across multiple interviews – though not quite as bad as what she has said about him, he admitted on News Breakfast. Being criticised comes with the territory (an old favourite); but also, this is just “scuttlebutt”. Ultimately, these dismissals (so hypocritical in light of the campaign he waged against Anthony Albanese just last week) only serve to reinforce the patronising denials we’ve seen from him time and again. (Curiously, he’s dropped out of tonight’s 7.30 interview with Leigh Sales.)

If Morrison is now so big on inquiries, why are we left wondering what happened to the inquiries into Julia Banks’ treatment and that of other women at the time of his ascension to the prime ministership? Why are we still waiting on the results into inquiries into what and when his office knew about certain rape allegations? And if the PM loves inquiries so much, shouldn’t we have one into the way he had been repeatedly alleged to have treated women, especially those on his own side? As the AFR’s Phil Coorey more-or-less wrote last week, hypocrisy’s a bitch, isn’t it?

The conversation around “the treatment of women in politics” has become very blurry in the past few weeks, as everyone returned to their ideological corners on the Kitching matter. But this is the very reason that such things need to be properly called out and distinguished, so that we don’t end up in a “both sides” mess. Something grossly factional appears to have gone down in Labor last year, but that simply doesn’t measure up to the fact that we’ve got a PM, currently seeking re-election, who appears to be – in the words of Fierravanti-Wells – “an autocrat and a bully who has no moral compass”. And there are good reasons that women are crying out for this to be taken seriously.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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