The Politics    Tuesday, February 16, 2021

‘As a father…’

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at a press conference today

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at a press conference today. Image via ABC News

Isn’t it lucky the prime minister didn’t have sons?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison formally responded to the Liberal Party sexual assault allegations this morning, apologising to former adviser Brittany Higgins and announcing a cultural and structural review into the handling of claims of harassment. “We clearly need to do better,” Morrison said, wearing a teal ribbon for sexual assault awareness. But the prime minister’s reasoning for the announcement drew a fierce backlash, disgusting women around the country. 

Morrison said it was a discussion with his wife, Jenny (another empathy consultant?), that prompted him to announce the review. “She said to me: ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’” he said. “Jenny has a way of clarifying things,” he added, saying he had reflected on it overnight.

Once again, Morrison showed himself to be short-changed in the empathy department, relying, as too many men do, on his relationship to the women in his life in order to see other women as deserving of dignity. (Not to mention, relying on his wife to help lead him to the conclusion that what happened was worthy of taking action.) It’s hard to believe we’re still having to call people out on the “as a father of daughters” trope, after so many instances of it, and it was no wonder that “Oh FFS”, along with #ScottyTheMisogynist and #AskJen, began trending on Twitter. As is pointed out every time this comes up, women are not just someone’s daughter/wife/sister; they themselves are someone, and men shouldn’t need to imagine them as their own relations to care about what happens to them. Would Morrison have been able to mount the appropriate level of empathy for Higgins (or anyone else in this situation) if he had only sons? Or, as his answer implies, would his mind have been with the perpetrator? 

10 News political reporter Tegan George rightly called the prime minister out on his comments. “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being?” she asked during the press conference. “What happens if men don’t have a wife and children?” Morrison only dug in deeper. “In my own experience, being a husband and a father is central to me, my human being. So I just can’t follow the question you’re putting.” As Sean Kelly noted, Morrison has a history of employing the “as a father” trope, in a manner that looks like empathy but is actually a “circumscription of empathy”. He also has a broader tendency to employ the women in his life and his “daggy dad” persona to soften his image and deflect criticism – such as using his wife and daughters to defend against attacks of sexism following 2019’s controversial International Women’s Day remarks. (“I have three wonderful women in my life,” he said the next day. “I’m a champion of women for them.”) On the one hand, it seems shocking that Morrison hasn’t figured this out yet, considering the backlash these kinds of comments often raise. But on the other, Morrison is the marketing man, and he likely knows what he is doing.

Morrison announced that the review of the complaints process will be led by his department’s deputy secretary, Stephanie Foster, while a review of the Coalition’s cultural problems around the treatment of women will be led by Liberal backbencher Celia Hammond, a former university vice-chancellor.

But as The Drum host Julia Baird was quick to note, Hammond is a “staunch anti-feminist”, who has in the past worried about women’s sexual freedoms, saying that young women who have premarital sex are “searching for something more”. 

Morrison told reporters today that he had only heard of the rape allegation in the past 24 hours, and was not happy he hasn’t been informed earlier, denying having a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But as many have noted, it’s a stretch to believe he wouldn’t have known, considering it involved a breach of Parliament House security, as well as the involvement of one of his own advisers. Something doesn’t add up here, and journalists don’t seem likely to let up on the issue. But assuming for a moment that Morrison did only just learn of Higgins’s allegation, there was already plenty of evidence available to him of the Liberal Party’s “women problem”. Higgins is the third Liberal Party staffer to allege she was sexually assaulted by men in the party in recent years, with Nine Media reporting on two other alleged Liberal Party assaults in 2019, and more recent reports on the behaviour of Christian Porter and Alan Tudge, and yet Morrison is only making this an issue now. If only Jen had suggested he look at those women like daughters… or even just people.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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