This week, several attempts were made to define whose problem, exactly, the present crisis of abuse and harassment is. “I think this is a man’s problem,” well-meaning Liberal MP Russell Broadbent told the ABC – an opinion echoed by a slew of commentators. “It’s not a women’s problem,” wrote one. The problem, added another, “isn’t so much about women, but how men in the party treat them”. This morning, the prime minister, responding to Liberal MP Andrew Laming’s online harassment of women, tried to make it social media’s problem – despite the fact that it’s members of his government, not digital platforms, that have been accused of raping, harassing and slut-shaming women. In Wednesday’s 2GB interview, Scott Morrison and Ray Hadley tried to move this issue away from women altogether – while excusing “blokes” for not always “getting it right”, of course. Hadley, referring to the report of male staffers performing lewd acts in Parliament House, thought the “narrative was lost” when it became about attacks on women again. “I don’t want to make this a men versus women, women versus men thing,” the PM said. “There are great women, and there are great men, and they want to do the right thing. And they don’t want to make this a whole identity issue.” It was a line he repeated in last night’s far less chummy interview with Nine’s Tracy Grimshaw. “I don’t think this should be an issue that sets men against women,” he said. “It’s not about men versus women.”
Morrison is keen not to make this a battle of the sexes, but time and time again in this saga, that is what it has felt like. After all, what is a “he said, she said” matter other than one that sees man pitted against woman? Hickey versus Abetz. “Christian” versus Kate. Laming versus the women he harassed. Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe versus the government senator and MP who regularly harass her. Higgins versus the men who won’t give a straight answer. Staffer masturbating over a female MP’s desk versus that female MP (it was never about the desk). The prime minister would have us believe this issue – of men assaulting and harassing women – is not about identity. But to suddenly pretend this isn’t about men and women ignores the fact that this is about men hurting women.
As he said in his infamous 2019 International Women’s Day remarks – surely a forewarning as to how he would handle this reckoning – “We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.” The PM seemed to continue that idea that things should change for women without anything really changing for men in his interview with Grimshaw. “You don’t have to tear things down to build things up,” he snapped at one point, clearly unwilling to accept that cultural change might involve tearing down any of the existing unequal power structures.
Repeatedly, Morrison has professed that he wants things to get better for women, without things getting any worse for men. He wants women to rise, but not at the expense of men. He thinks we should believe women, but not at the expense of disbelieving men. The quota conversation, which so terrifies Liberal men, comes down to the same issue: they want more women in parliament, but not at the expense of disadvantaging men. But justice for women will sometimes mean justice against men. That is what Morrison – with his IWD comments, his refusal to believe women who make allegations against members of his government, his unwillingness to “tear things down” – fails to grasp. Women rising, women being listened to, women having more seats in parliament, will often come at the expense of men.
This is not a war women started, nor is it one they want to be in, but it is unfortunately very much about men versus women – these are the terms men have set. But it doesn’t have to be a war on #allmen. Plenty of men and non-binary people attended the March 4 Justice, and many have spoken out forcefully about this issue. It is simply women versus men who abuse or enable that abuse, and it’s easy enough to pick a side. On Tuesday, the prime minister asked women to stand with him, but they’re asking him to stand with them.
Regardless of the semantics of whose “problem” they are, rape and harassment are Scott Morrison’s problem now as PM – and likely a major issue for his leadership. Morrison is not one of the abusers or the harassers, the ones women are trying to call out here. But with each statement, each cheap shot, each choice to side with the accused over the accuser, he is further making an enemy of women around the country. This issue is in many ways about men versus women, but the prime minister should be seriously concerned about how much it’s become this man versus women.