Australia’s conservative government is mired in sexual abuse scandals. In March, an allegation of a historic sexual assault committed by former attorney general Christian Porter came to light. Then there were revelations about an alleged rape that took place inside Parliament House, as well as a video of a staffer masturbating on a female MP’s desk. These and other scandals have exposed a deeply ingrained sexist culture in Australia’s parliament.
The wave of scandals has sparked a new feminist movement. In March, tens of thousands of women attended more than forty marches throughout the country demanding action.
In response, PM Scott Morrison has attempted to regain the initiative. To address the “woman problem,” he has announced four inquiries into the Liberal and National parties, staff conduct in federal parliament, and his own office. He has reshuffled his cabinet, demoting Porter and Linda Reynolds, who grossly mishandled the allegation of rape inside Parliament House made by her then staffer Brittany Higgins.
Morrison has also promoted several women to the front bench with newly minted portfolios in women’s economic security and women’s safety. And he has announced summits on women’s economic security, domestic violence, and affordable childcare — conveniently, due to be held after the May budget announcement.
Morrison’s “Women Agenda”
While insisting that he is listening to women, Morrison has staunchly backed his party’s men by supporting Christian Porter’s denial of wrongdoing and refusing to eject an MP who allegedly took an upskirt photo of a constituent. Morrison has rejected an account given by Tasmanian Liberal MP Sue Hickey, who accused Liberal senator Eric Abetz of blaming Brittany Higgins for her own assault on the grounds that she was “disgustingly drunk.”
However inadequate Morrison’s parliamentary moves may be, his measures to address gendered abuse in society as a whole are even worse. The parliamentary abuse crisis isn’t limited to the political class — it follows a decade of regression for women’s rights and social status. Since the Coalition first came to office in 2013, Australia has fallen from twenty-fourth to fiftieth place in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings, released last month.
A week after Morrison tearily promised to “do better” on women’s issues, he went ahead with plans to end last year’s temporary increase to JobSeeker unemployment benefits. This has reduced incomes for 700,000 unemployed women, who must now try to get by on a payment that even members of the government agree is impossible to survive on.
At the same time, Morrison’s government has implemented “DobSeeker,” a hotline that will allow employers to report job seekers who interview poorly or refuse job offers. Publicly justified as a trade-off for a pitiful $3.50 per day raise to the base unemployment benefit, the hotline is a dangerous weapon in the hands of exploitative employers. As Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michelle O’Neil has noted, sleazy bosses may now threaten to report interviewees who refuse their advances, resulting in a loss of entitlements.
Morrison has also continued the Coalition’s long-standing punitive approach toward unemployed single mothers. Thanks to a Howard-era policy that shunted unemployed single mothers with children over the age of eight onto JobSeeker, most faced the same loss of the temporary pandemic increase to JobSeeker last month. A report from the Brotherhood of St Laurence details some of the consequences faced by single mothers who are reliant on the payment, including being forced to skip meals, skimp on clothing for growing children, or stay in contact with abusive former partners in order to access child support.
For parents of younger children, the Morrison government also remains committed to the punitive ParentsNext scheme. The scheme requires participants to comply with various “mutual obligations,” a euphemism for compulsory activities including children’s play groups and library reading sessions. The program’s participants are 95 percent women and 20 percent Indigenous. A failure to participate in these programs — which often clash with work or other commitments — can result in a loss of payments.
For women in the workforce, Morrison has committed to accepting “wholly, in part, or in principle” most recommendations of sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’s Respect@Work report. This pledge should certainly not be taken at face value. Morrison made a similar promise in response to the Banking Royal Commission, but a new analysis from the Guardian shows that the government ignored more than half of its recommendations.
Indeed, Morrison has already rejected the report’s key recommendations that there should be a positive onus on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment and to regard harassment as a workplace health and safety issue. At present, unlike workers who are injured at work, victims of harassment must sue their employers and establish in court that they failed to do enough to prevent harassment.
This requires victims to file complaints, pay for legal representation, and go through court proceedings, effectively denying many women access to justice. At the same time, national surveys show increasing workplace rates of sexual harassment and decreasing rates of reporting, while women’s legal services remain underfunded.
Listening to Women
These verbal gestures are part and parcel of the Liberal playbook. In 2012, Tony Abbott publicly supported events organized by White Ribbon Australia against violence toward women. Upon becoming prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull claimed that taking action against domestic violence would be his first priority. In 2016, he labelled domestic violence rates a “national shame.”
Since then, however, the situation for women has deteriorated. As Nancy Fraser warned, “capitalism would much prefer to confront claims for recognition over claims for redistribution.” Without economic justice, gender quotas and better messaging on women’s issues are meaningless at best, rhetorical cover for steps backward at worst.
Mainstream news outlets have already pronounced the forthcoming May budget to be “woman-friendly,” naively applauding the government for merely “considering” an expansion of childcare subsidies. However, this celebration is almost certainly premature. While the budget is likely to contain some measures aimed at women, they are sure to pale in comparison with other regressive moves.
For example, the government is going ahead with its stage three tax cuts, which will slash the tax rate for the highest income earners. Men will receive 72 percent of the benefits, depleting funds that could be directed instead toward social spending at a time when more women and men are reliant on entitlements than ever. Similarly, the gendered wage gap — something that treasurer Josh Frydenberg declared to be closed in 2019 — stands at 14 percent.
Morrison has vindicated Nancy Fraser’s warning by elevating women with track records of fighting for misogynistic and anti-working-class policies. He handed Porter’s role as industrial relations minister to Michaelia Cash, who spent the better part of the last four years in litigation against the Australian Workers’ Union after her office tipped off the media about an illegal police raid on their offices. Former defense minister Linda Reynolds labelled Bethany Higgins a “lying cow,” but Morrison refused to remove her from the front bench.
Cash and Reynolds will now be joined in the cabinet by Amanda Stoker, who has a record of speaking at anti-abortion protests. She also defended awarding an Order of Australia to Bettina Arndt, a men’s rights activist who organized a “Fake Rape Crisis” speaking tour at universities. Better representation for women in high places is hardly a victory for feminism if those women are hostile to sexual assault victims and to workers’ rights.
Give Working-Class Women More Money
The simplest and most powerful way to attack sexual abuse and gendered violence is to give working-class women more money. Temporary measures in response to the pandemic show that this is possible. Those measures have included free universal childcare, increased funding for domestic violence services, and the most significant boost to welfare entitlements in memory.
The Australia Institute estimates that the initial temporary increase to JobSeeker alone lifted almost half a million people out of poverty, including 75,000 children. The website 550 Reasons to Smile captures the difference that the $550 increase made to many women’s lives, with entries detailing how it allowed them to leave abusive partners, buy fresh food, or take their children to the dentist for the first time.
Morrison’s government has largely wound back these sorely needed improvements. It’s possible that the crisis may push the government to commit additional funds to childcare and domestic violence services in its May budget. However, women’s economic security minster Jane Hume has already warned that this is unlikely, saying that you cannot “appropriately put a gender lens on the budget.”
Economic questions are inseparable from gender inequality. Women, as workers or welfare recipients, have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Yet the government remains committed to a punitive welfare system that traps people in poverty, tax breaks for mostly male high-income earners, and generous subsidies for big business in male-dominated sectors.
Domestic violence can certainly not be addressed while cutting welfare spending. Poor women who want to leave their partners often find accommodation costs to be prohibitive. Along with the expenses associated with supporting children, this economic pressure traps them in abusive relationships.
Without social support and economic equality, the majority of women will find it much harder to live dignified lives, leave abusive partners, or raise families independently. If we want to end sexual abuse and gendered violence, the first step is to give women more money.