Written by Coquohalla J. Connor
Graphic by Paris Robson
Disclaimer: This article was written in early April—as the Brittney Higgins case and others like it were unfolding—and so some of the information may have changed and developed over time. I encourage readers to follow the stories presented in this piece: only through facts, and hard, cold evidence, can we demand change. Let this quote by journalist and author Kate Hodges speak to you as it did me:
“Yes, we are angry; yes, we are making a noise about it; and yes, we are hungry for change. We are harpies.”
The Liberal Party and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have flung their dirty laundry out the window and onto the garden below. Despite the lunacy, no one seems to be surprised.
This is for two main reasons. The first is that the Liberal Party has never been interested in women. The last time it was, Menzies was in charge; but even then, it was only the stay-at-home wives who got a look in. Then there’s Morrison himself, the bloke next door, who—amid the pandemic—bought chickens and named them all after the wives of Australian Prime Ministers. What a feminist icon.
Many have pointed to these two reasons in an attempt to explain the Liberal Government’s recent actions. How could we be surprised? Well, that’s just the thing: we aren’t. When the 2020 Budget was released, leaving women out and exposed to the elements, many of us were unsurprised. When Brittany Higgins bravely told her story and exposed the Liberal Government’s failure to protect her, we were, once again, unsurprised.
What Morrison and his cabinet fail to understand is that ‘unsurprised’ does not mean ‘blissfully unaware’. It does not mean ‘tolerant and forgiving’. In this case, unsurprised is followed by white-hot anger, accompanied by a side of exasperation, and sprinkled with bravery. Better watch out, Morrison: the plate is hot.
The Federal Budget released in 2020 was a blow to women in Australia. ActionAid’s Executive Director, Michelle Higelin, responded to the Budget by stating, “Australia is shirking its global responsibility to take leadership on the disproportionate impact this pandemic has had on women”. Higelin has hit the nail on the head. While Morrison may claim that the Budget did not seek to leave women in the dust, the facts speak for themselves. The Budget pledged $240.4 million (over 5 years) towards economic security for women, which is less than 0.04% of its spending.
There was no new funding for domestic or family violence, despite an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic lockdowns and in the face of the shocking statistic that every week in Australia, a woman is murdered by her current or previous partner. A survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that two thirds of women had their abuse start or become worse during the pandemic. The lack of funding into organisations that can help women fleeing abusive relationships makes you wonder if Morrison and Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are aware this is an issue at all.
There were also no safety nets put in place to safeguard women against unemployment, despite ABS statistics finding that Victorian women were losing their jobs at four times the rate of men in July 2020. There was a focus on construction, an industry that in 2019 employed 88% men, while women-dominated sectors such as hospitality, tourism, and education received next to nothing. Despite this, Morrison was determined Australians return to work; how he expects women to do this is still up in the air. The fact that women are facing unemployment, job insecurity, and a lack of funding for childcare also means that women will struggle to re-enter the workforce.
Morrison responded to calls that the Budget had left women behind by stating,”they are the voices of division that will undermine the future economic prosperity of all Australians.” Australian women everywhere rolled their eyes in annoyance, myself included. This is a Liberal Government run by a bloke-next-door type; he doesn’t like those pesky women (Jenny Morrison excluded), so it wasn’t surprising. However, I couldn’t help but feel outraged. If I had known that being a woman would go against the prosperity of all Australians, then I would’ve chosen to be born a boy instead of wasting my time with being an educated woman.
If we needed more proof of Morrison and his cabinet’s failure to understand women’s rights, issues, and inclusion, we need not look further than the handling of the sexual allegations levied by Brittney Higgins.
Higgins’ story is one that many have shared and been outraged by. It is a story familiar to women internationally. In February 2021, Higgins came forward alleging she was sexually assaulted by a staffer in the Office of (then) Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. Higgins alleges she told Reynolds, who did not fire the staffer in question. Worse, Higgins alleges that Morrison also knew and did nothing; while the perpetrator later lost his job, this was due to unrelated security breaches. No one protected Brittany, except herself.
After Higgins’ story became public, Morrison was asked to discuss the allegations. He said he had gone home and asked his wife about how he should think about sexual assault, to which Jenny Morrison told him to think about this “as a father”. In response, Tegan George from 10 News quickly asked, “shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being?” Apparently not. Morrison replied, “being a husband and a father is central to me . . . so I just can’t follow the question.” According to Morrison himself, his understanding of sexual assault is something he has only come to understand through marriage and children. Before this, he didn’t know about it. What a privileged, unaware life single Morrison must’ve led.
It soon came to light that Reynolds had called Higgins a “lying cow” following the allegations becoming public. Reynolds later apologized – but only after Higgins’ defence team sent a letter to her demanding a public apology. Despite this, somehow Reynolds still has a role in the Cabinet. In no other workplace would a boss be involved in a sexual assault case, call the victim a lying cow, and then continue working like business as usual. Currently, Reynolds is on health leave due to complications with her heart. Only after public backlash did Morrison perform a reshuffle of cabinet and placed Peter Dutton in the role of Defence Minister, whom we all know is a champion of women everywhere.
Higgins’ story exposed the Liberal Party’s misogyny and sexism. Morrison failed to listen to women, instead blaming others, claiming he did not know, and refusing to cut out the various sexist tumours in his party. But to do that would surely be career suicide for himself. Senator Penny Wong made a statement that perfectly sums this up: “Mr Morrison talks about culture. But what he is not talking about is the culture he leads, the culture he leads in his own government, where no matter what happens, he is never responsible. Where nobody is accountable for anything. And where a serious crime was covered up.”
The issue with Morrison, in all crises, is that he is no leader. He’s a follower, and when a leader is needed, Morrison seems to look about in an attempt to find someone to follow. This time, he’s found solace in Marise Payne, Minister for Foregin Affairs, who—in Morrison’s words—will act as Prime Minister for Women. Payne, who already tackles the huge portfolio of Foreign Affairs, will now add Minister for Women to her résumé. It seems almost unfair that a Minister who is already swamped with one of the largest portfolios will now have to spend the spare five minutes a day she has on women’s issues, which deserves 24 hours. She will head a task force alongside Morrison that aims to tackle the women’s issues that have previously been ignored. Female Ministers who have been newly appointed (Attorney General Michaelia Cash and Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews), as well as Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston, and Minister for the Environment Susan Ley, will be in this task force alongside Frydenberg. Somehow, the issue has been pushed to the lady folk: excluding them to include them seems to be the strategy. Well, I suppose we’ll see where that takes us.
Morrison and his government have proven themselves to be unashamedly oblivious towards women’s issues. The Budget left out women, yet Morrison expects women to get back to work. The handling of Higgins’ case has made clear that Morrison and his cabinet refuse to take responsibility for their actions; instead, they would prefer to pretend everything is just swell. The Liberal Party’s attempt to fix their culture by overloading Marise Payne is simply not enough.
In the words of Australian of the Year, sexual assault survivor Grace Tame: “Behaviour unspoken, behaviour ignored, is behaviour endorsed.”
The Morrison government is as silent as ever.