The metallic clatter of cameras, a heavy sigh. His language emphatic: “shocked,” “disgusted”; “shameful.” This time he really means it. He’s listening now.
By the time Prime Minister Scott Morrison fronts the press gallery in late March 2021, Australians have for more than three years been living in the era of #MeToo, and have been consuming an almost daily diet of stories about sexual harassment, assault and rape. But not stories like this. An alleged rape in a minister’s office. A brutal rape alleged against the federal attorney-general. A male staffer masturbating on a female MP’s desk. This is the stuff of nightmares, and it’s playing out in the nation’s parliament.
Morrison is hitting the bitumen to Damascus. He has been listening carefully to women about the “rubbish and crap” they have been putting up with “for their entire lives, as their mothers did, as their grandmothers did.” Australian women “walk daily in fear,” are “overlooked and talked over by men,” are “marginalised … belittled … diminished … and objectified.” He bemoans the fact that women facing this behaviour in the workplace are too afraid to call it out, for fear of being intimidated or losing their job. “That’s not okay,” he says sincerely, “and it’s not their fault. It’s the environment we’ve allowed to be created. Whether this is unconscious deafness and blindness, or whether it is wilful malevolence that is behind all of this, it must be acknowledged, it must be called out and it must stop.”
Before he’s finished, Morrison asks us to grant him one indulgence. On this issue, he has the “deepest of vested interests”: “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.” To these four women, choking back tears, he makes his pledge: “I will not let you down.” To all other women he offers encouragement and gratitude for their courage. He needs them to stand together with him.
This is the prime minister’s long-awaited reset, and the mea culpa clichés are twitching in the typewriters. But then things get dark.
Andrew Clennell, political editor for Sky News Australia, asks Morrison pointedly: “Prime Minister, if you were the boss of a business and there’d been an alleged rape on your watch, and this incident we heard about last night, on your watch, your job would probably be in a bit of jeopardy, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t it look like you’ve lost control of your ministerial staff here?”
The moral and decent Dr Jekyll flips to his unrepentant double. The reporters in front of him are sitting in “glass houses,” Morrison warns. Is Mr Clennell not aware of the complaint made in his own organisation, about an incident of harassment in a women’s toilet? No, says Clennell, he is not.
It’s a mask-off moment. Writes Luke Pearson from IndigenousX, “Just so we are all on the same page, ‘Glass houses’ in this context means ‘We should keep each other’s secrets about sexual harassment and sexual abuse in our respective workplaces’ yeah? That’s a very cool and normal thing for a Prime Minister to say to media live on television.”
It’s worse than that. The prime minister is not just making a veiled threat to the gathered reporters, and he is not just divulging a complaint made in confidence. He is sending a chilling coded message to one woman in the room: the journalist who broke the story of Brittany Higgins being allegedly raped in parliament house, News Corp’s political editor, Samantha Maiden. As will emerge later, it is she against whom this “complaint” has apparently been made.
But Morrison can’t even get a coded message right. There’s been no complaint at News Corp, and the complaint he has invoked had nothing to do with sex or harassment; it was a disagreement about press gallery politics. The prime minister, in his passionate apology to Australian women, has just levelled a false accusation against a female journalist in the press gallery, live on national television.
Minutes earlier, he had offered this moment of communion: “Women are too afraid to call out bad behaviour for fear of losing a job or being intimidated in their workplace.”
Indeed. To borrow a phrase from former prime minister Julia Gillard, what Scott Morrison needed here was not an apology, but a mirror.
Here’s what men like Scott Morrison don’t understand: political spin has no power against the rage unleashed by #MeToo. At its heart, this is an accountability movement, one that dares to ask men the ugly question: what will it take for your kind to stop coercing, harassing, raping, and killing women? Of power, it demands: what will it take for you to stop protecting the men who perpetrate this? To Morrison, the message is clear: passionate speeches will not appease us. We see you.
The cultural revolution of #MeToo is not just about sexual violence. It is taking aim at patriarchy’s most sacred compact: the keeping of men’s secrets. Consciousness-raising movements have for fifty years revealed the ubiquity of sexual harassment and violence. Since the rise of social media in the early 2010s, there have been viral hashtags like #YesAllWomen and #WhyIStayed. Traditionally, such movements have been focused on raising the consciousness of women, but #MeToo has taken it a step further: it has made men sit up and take notice. That’s because, this time, women aren’t just sharing what happened to them – they’re pointing the finger. It’s not just I was raped, but he is the one who raped me – and they are the ones who protected him. This approach seems to have set off an alarm bell in the amygdala of men worldwide: holy shit, this time they’re coming for us.
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