There has been a particular rhetoric in parliament over the past months. Each time a man (or a Liberal Party woman, which is to say a proxy for the patriarchy) has stood in front of cameras to weep, he has delivered a wink and a nod to others like him, through crocodile tears, as to the true nature of the story. Not that a young woman’s life has been irrevocably changed by a man’s actions, but that a poor, silly fella is being taken to task in front of his mates.
Look, he seems to say, you know how blokes are.
Each time new allegations emerge, we hear a slightly altered explanation of how this was able to happen. The gist is always the same: some fella didn’t realise he wasn’t meant to treat women like this. The same argument is echoed in communities across the country. You can’t even whistle at a woman anymore. You can’t even playfully slap their arse. Suddenly, out of nowhere, it’s unacceptable to follow a woman home and hide in the bushes.
In an A Current Affair interview with Tracy Grimshaw (26/3), Prime Minister Scott Morrison took this wilful ignorance a step further. ‘You’ve lived with it every day,’ he says pointedly to Grimshaw, simmering with a restrained fury. ‘You’ve lived with it, I’m sure, your whole life.’
‘Women do,’ Grimshaw says, accurately. One in six women has experienced at least one sexual assault since the age of 15—the government’s own reported statistic.
‘You have. And I’m sure every women [sic] has.’
‘You’re not on an island,’ she says. ‘How did you not know the depth of it?’
He’s exasperated. ‘This is the difficult part of this,’ he says. ‘You understand it in a way that only you could. I have a very different experience to yours, as do many men in this country.’
Rather than the ‘difficult’ part of ‘this’ being that Morrison is at the head of an organisation practically collapsing under the weight of its own sexual violence, it is women’s secret knowledge. The suggestion seems to be that at some level, Grimshaw—and all Australian women—should apologise for their experiences because it puts them at an advantage. How, these men might ask, are they meant to know this has been happening if they are not themselves subject to repeated acts of assault from the time they are children? Very unfair.
This is the evolution of ‘boys will be boys’. Society broadly excuses aggressive behaviour by young men as though it is biological impulse. Cisnormative gender stereotypes reinforce the notion that boys are only hitting girls because they like them. The same little boys who whack a girl with a toy truck become the young men who cat-call women on trams become the parliamentarians who smirk in the face of sexual assault allegations.
How dare women expect better from men? When were they supposed to learn how to treat us, between being on the rugby firsts and drinking middle-shelf whisky with their uni mates? It’s not their fault. They didn’t have time before now. This is the absolute first opportunity they have had in their whole lives to try to learn the absurd language women are speaking. It’s not their fault no-one has ever taught them otherwise. They’re just blokes doing bloke stuff!
Is this new? Obviously not. Almost half of all Australians believe rape accusations are used for revenge. Logically, it follows that the men on the receiving end are not perpetrators, but the innocent victims of smear campaigns. Being raped is obviously terrible but have you ever tried being accused of rape, in 2021, when you’re only just now learning that women don’t like it when men do things like penetrate them without consent?
On March 15, women took to the streets to protest for their own safety in workplaces. The ‘in workplaces’ part was significant; it was not a march for all violence against women, or for all sexual assault. It was specifically and explicitly an action to demand justice for women who have felt unsafe in their workplace.
To no-one’s surprise, the Prime Minister chose not to attend the rally at Parliament House, instead inviting organiser Janine Hendry to have a quiet chat in his office. ‘We have already come to the front door,’ Hendry tweeted in response, ‘now it’s up to the Government to cross the threshold and come to us. We will not be meeting behind closed doors.’ Out came a henchwoman into the corridor—MP Jane Hume—to condescendingly implore Hendry not to waste the ‘exciting opportunity’ to enter the PM’s quarters. The government’s solution for Parliament House being unsafe for women was to invite women into Parliament House.
In his opening remarks in that day’s Question Time, he now-famously said, ‘Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country, Mr Speaker. This is a triumph of democracy when we see these things take place.’
Morrison uses a particular kind of language to explain the gaps in his awareness. In recent weeks we have watched him make a statement he believes to be empowering and empathetic, then recant it with a non-apology that puts the onus back on women. He’s just a bloke doing his best, right blokes? You blokes know what I blokeing mean.
‘I need women to stand with me,’ a frustrated Morrison said a week after the march. ‘I admire their courage and I call on it.’
He went on: ‘I acknowledge that many have not liked or appreciated some of my own personal responses to this over the course of the last month, and I accept that.’ With his voice breaking, bottom lip quivering and eyes red, he then declared: ‘Criticise me if you like, for speaking about my daughters, but they are the centre of my life. My wife is the centre of my life. My mother, my widowed mother, is the centre of my life. They motivate me every day on this issue.’
That speech almost showed a sincere willingness to change. Someone paying less close attention to the government’s actions over the past three months might have taken Morrison at face value and believed he was really listening. But there is a veiled aggravation in each of his addresses—he’s trying, and women aren’t being nice about it.
A few days after that, he said it out loud: ‘Blokes don’t get it right all the time, we all know that, but what matters is that we’re desperately trying to …’
We are supposed to applaud the bare minimum efforts of a government that will hold a place for men who 1. are accused of rape, 2. are accused of criminal acts including stalking and taking upskirt photos 3. allegedly questioned why a woman was drunk the night she was allegedly raped, 4. call themselves ‘the big swinging dicks’, and 5. now have a monopoly on the word ‘alleged’. There is a clear pattern emerging. Whether it’s masturbating on a woman’s desk, backgrounding the family of an alleged victim or sexually harassing fellow senators, Parliament House is in the midst of a sexual violence crisis.
This is the prime ministerial equivalent of bringing home a bunch of flowers because you worked late again. He has failed to consider that other staple of womanhood—sacrificing ourselves for hapless men. Picking up their towels. Reminding them to call their mothers. And wow, are we done with that.
Members of the government seem to believe it matters how they feel about the various recent allegations. Perhaps this is a hangover from their $190,000 empathy training. But the extent of their distress is irrelevant. Their feelings cannot be the most important thing about this process. They cannot even factor. It is still about them. It still focuses on the magnitude of their discomfort and the nerve of women to tell them things they don’t want to hear. Their self-discovery comes at the expense of delivering justice to women who are the victims of actual crimes. Not victims of failing to learn anything before now or having their total lack of understanding publicly revealed. Actual crimes. Not taping photos of their children into their speech notes or deploying a few eyedrops in the green room. Violent sexual crimes.
There are consequences, of course. This is not a circus. Queensland MP Andrew Laming was ordered to spend one hour in empathy training (he has since announced he will not contest the next election). Attorney-General Christian Porter was directed to take paid mental health leave and may return on partial duties. On a number of occasions, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has had to go home to his wife and daughters and ask them what he’s meant to think about things.
How often we have been fed the line that women are too emotional to be trusted with big political decisions, and yet here are a group of spoilt, privileged men crying on TV so they might be absolved of their ignorance. It is not their fault that they didn’t know about this before now. It is the women’s fault for failing to tell them.
By contrast, the actual victims—all women—are speaking out in ways that don’t centre themselves. Brittany Higgins’ testimony catalysed many similar stories, giving voice to a groundswell of women. Australian of the Year Grace Tame—with whom Morrison gleefully posed—delivered a rousing speech to the National Press Club, hopeful for change for all women. Not just them. Not ‘poor me’, despite how profoundly justified that would be in the circumstances.
Morrison assumes, too, a homogeneity of women. He doesn’t speak for all women but neither do his wife and daughters, the centre of his life. He takes gendered violence advice from white, middle-class teenagers and a woman whose religion declares women should be subservient. Even if he does listen to them—and his PR team at least seem to assure us of this—how can he even begin to extrapolate that to women in other demographic groups; to First Nations women, women of colour, trans women, sex workers, refugee women, women fleeing domestic violence?
There absolutely is a widespread issue of patriarchal violence. Obviously. But the Morrison government isn’t being asked to fix everything, as the PM claims. Morrison is conflating the issue of violence against women with what’s actually being asked: that he clean up the mess in his own parliament. If he wants to be a figurehead—and he does—then he must accept that what happens in Canberra sets the agenda for other businesses across the country. That as the leader of a business, he can and must take responsibility for what’s happening there. If he truly wants to shift attitudes towards women (the jury is out, but that’s what he says he wants to do) then he has to walk the walk first. He’s a master of lip service. His speeches say the right words, but nothing happens afterwards. These are the emperor’s new sexual harassment policies.
I believe Scott Morrison. I believe him when he says he’s doing his best. I even believe that he’s learning new things every day about the experience of being a woman. I wholeheartedly accept that the Prime Minister of this country is just a bloke, muddling his way through this confusing old world, where men drink beers and women hope someone will stop objectifying them long enough to listen.
This doomed-husband-Ray-Barone schtick is done. In neglecting to protect the women in his workplace, Morrison acts as though he has forgotten to take out the bins or pick up the kids from sport. The Prime Ministership cannot be a training ground to learn about women. Federal Government is not a postgraduate program for private school boys who never learned to take care of themselves. The men defending these allegations cannot be allowed to hold up their hands and say, ‘It’s my first day!’
Thumbs-up blokey rhetoric is not going to fly this time. ‘I have heard, I have listened and I will have a lot more to say about this in the next month about further actions,’ Morrison said in his March 23 speech. ‘Today is not a day for me to list further actions.’ One wonders if it might be less disappointing to simply wait for the Rapture.
This government cannot deliver action on sexual violence. They have told us to our faces: they simply do not understand how.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is a Melbourne writer. Her new book, on life with complex mental illness, is forthcoming from Pan Macmillan.