Despite hopes it might be otherwise, the new round of the gender wars has become as rugged and nasty as their cousins, the culture and history wars.
Triggered by two separate rape allegations, and culminating in Monday’s national march, there’s little doubt the roar from so many Australian women will have an impact. The form and extent of that impact, however, is the as-yet-unanswerable question.
The politicians do know things will change, reluctant as some might be to accept it.
Suddenly, bad behaviour can’t be swept under the carpet.
On Wednesday there was a telling example of the contrast between “then” and “now”.
Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor, speaking at 6pm, told the state parliament that in 2019 Andrew Hudgson, a staffer of the then premier, Will Hodgman, had called her a “meth-head c***”. Her media adviser had heard the profanity, and a formal complaint was made to Hodgman’s office.
Hodgman subsequently informed O’Connor an investigation had found the claim was “not substantiated”.
Hudgson later became media adviser to federal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar. After O’Connor’s speech, Hudgson was instantly turfed out of his job. It didn’t require any inquiry.
A spokesperson for Sukkar said: “The government was unaware of any allegations raised about the alleged behaviour of the staff member during their previous employment. After several historical allegations surfaced, the staff member has ceased employment with the office.”
You could drive the proverbial large truck through this defence.
Hudgson had been in a high-profile state political office; moreover, the story had been reported (though his name not used) in the local Mercury newspaper.
The federal Coalition has a “star chamber” process to vet prospective staff. How could the “star chamber” not properly check someone’s past? How could it be “unaware of any allegations”?
So what’s changed? It’s not so much knowledge about the staffer – which was available if those scrutinising appointments wanted to ask – as the politics around his employment.
From now on, any staffers (or parliamentarians) with skeletons in their cupboards should be very fearful. They face a high risk of being called out under parliamentary privilege.
Even before the march, the stoking of the gender wars after Brittany Higgins’ claim she was raped in a minister’s office had the positive result of forcing the Morrison government to set up an inquiry, by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, into the parliament house workplace.
But we’ve also seen the issues about the treatment of women become increasingly partisanised.
As Labor has tried to exploit the crisis around Attorney-General Christian Porter, accused of raping a girl when he was 17 (which he strenuously denies), Scott Morrison has pointed back at the opposition.
There was plenty to mine – not just the police investigation into a historical rape allegation against Bill Shorten (which resulted in no charges), but a Facebook group where former and current Labor staffers have posted a litany of graphic complaints of misconduct.
South Australian Liberal MP Nicolle Flint became a lightning rod as the partisanship escalated.
Flint, who is on the right of the party, was the object of particularly horrific harassment (stalking, trolling, defacement of her electorate office) before the 2019 election, which she has previously highlighted. She recently announced she would not run again.
On Tuesday she returned to her experiences, in a parliamentary speech that laid into Anthony Albanese and Labor women.
Channelling Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech against Tony Abbott, Flint declared: “I say to the leader of the opposition: I will not be lectured by you. I will not be lectured by your side of politics about the treatment of women in this place.”
She accused senior Labor women of failing to support her when she was under attack.
Morrison went out of his way at a news conference the following day to take a question on Flint, describing her as “incredibly brave”. The prime minister drove home a political jibe. “I just am amazed [that] the Labor Party and the unions and GetUp just stood by and let that happen. They were aware. They saw it. They were happy to be advantaged by it.”
On Thursday Flint told parliament she’d had a barrage of online abuse in response to her speech.
As Morrison struggles on this new political front, his minister for women, Marise Payne, isn’t providing much visible help.
Having the women’s portfolio lumped with Payne’s foreign ministry responsibilities is a bad mix to start with. She doesn’t have enough time or energy to devote to it.
Moreover, Payne hates having to do media appearances, usually finding ways of avoiding them.
In the current climate, Morrison needs her to be crafting effective policy responses, as well as being a convincing voice out in the public marketplace.
Payne, a Liberal moderate who years ago was not so reticent publicly, is said to have strong views on the issues. She should be in Morrison’s ear about substance and language (his, that is). She made a major mistake in not insisting she go out to Monday’s demonstration.
Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent, a moderate from Victoria, on Thursday came up with suggestions for a way forward. They were modest but they were constructive.
Broadbent told parliament he’d written to Morrison saying he should do two things immediately.
“The first is to convene a national gathering of women that represent women’s peak organisations and every local government area to recommend to parliament the pathway to real and lasting change in our homes, our workplaces, and on the streets,” Broadbent said.
He’s also asked Morrison “to introduce a gender impact statement for all cabinet submissions, new policies and legislation”.
Broadbent said that, as a parliamentarian and a man, he acknowledged “the disregard for women that has led to this fork in our road”.
“Women will drive this change. I hope more men will join them. Politicians need to be quiet, listen and learn. Actions, not words, count.”
But defining and achieving that action promises to be a controversial, tough and often divisive process.
Author: Michelle Grattan – Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra