Scott Morrison is losing the women of Australia at a giddying rate

Peter LewisTue, 30 March 2021, 1:03 am

<img src="–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ni41NzY1NzY1NzY1NzY2/–~B/aD02MDA7dz05OTk7YXBwaWQ9eXRhY2h5b24-/; alt="<span>Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images
Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

The moment it was clear to me that the Howard government was history was when WorkChoices jumped from the political beltway into the popular culture and became a plotline in Kath & Kim.

Kim’s bloke Brett is fired for taking an unscheduled toilet break, then rehired on inferior pay and conditions. Kath is livid: “Oh bloody Howard! I’d like to take away his toot breaks and see how he feels in his jolly lower house.”

For all the organising and key messages, the adverts and marches, seeing an issue percolate organically into the lounge rooms of Australia is the moment you know it has taken hold and there is no political recovery plan.

Related: Essential poll: Morrison’s approval takes a hit from female voters while remaining unchanged with men

I was reminded of Kath & Kim in the scornful, defiant image of a lone female sports scientist snapped with folded arms on the outer as our prime minister bro’ed out post-match in a rugby league dressing room over the weekend.

The image captured something more than politics, as the woman later shared on a social media: “I will not respect a man who has the time to shake hands of men who have won a football match but is ‘too busy’ to attend the March 4 Justice.”

What started two months ago with the allegation of a criminal attack on a young woman in our national capital has now taken on a life of its own for the half of the nation who don’t need key messages or talking points to knows things need to change.

This week’s Essential Report reinforces that Scott Morrison is losing the women of Australia at a giddying rate with one in six women having withdrawn their approval of him over the past two months. What is holding the prime minister’s head above water is the fact that male voters have not moved an inch.Do you approve or disapprove of the job Scott Morrison is doing as Prime Minister?

Unlike male respondents, women are bringing their personal experiences into this conversation. The daily atrocities alleged in Canberra have metastasised, fuelling a national blaze beyond the prime minister’s control.

He has exhausted his armoury: technical justifications for inaction, errant obfuscations, inquiries with no output, faux outrage, Pentecostal confessional, embracing taboos, personnel reshuffles and endless resets. But at each step, he is met with disbelief from the women of Australia who are not just observers of this crisis, but participants.

A similar gender gap emerges on the question of whether the seemingly constant stream of revelations out of Canberra of abhorrent behaviour is specific to parliament or symptomatic of discrimination in broader society. If you are a fella the jury still seems to be out, but for women it’s overwhelmingly a part of something bigger.Following allegations of sexual assault and misogynistic behaviour by staffers, a review into Parliament House workplace culture has been initiated. Which of the following is closest to your view on the issue?

The sobering news for the prime minister is that the legal processes wrapping themselves around his ministry and backbench mean there will be no short-term resolution to the focus on his government.

As these processes roll on, the demands for serious measures to keep women safe in work and the home, to address the inequities in the economy and to simply shut up and listen for a change will only intensify.

That’s why the candid image from the Parramatta Eels dressing room is so compelling: it was not staged or managed.

The club that proudly posted the image on social media did not even see the woman on the margins: it wasn’t until she raised her voice, momentarily, that the context of what we were seeing was obvious. Women are waiting for action, while too many men are carrying on as if it’s all a passing show.

A separate question in this week’s Essential Report shows there is strong cross-gender support for a national summit, an urgent need to dust off the findings of the sex discrimination commissioner’s report on sexual harassment and the need for a specialist sexual assault court following the government’s decision to abolish the family court.

None of which to say that the Morison government is as dead as Howard was once Kath & Kim went to air: the political capital accumulated last year is real and will be resilient.

But what is clear is the prospect of a simple vaccine rollout, smooth economic reopening and quick-fire election campaign to endorse services rendered now appears off the table.

Because something else is now spreading across the community. It will not be contained by a lockdown or social distancing or any modern political management technique.

• Peter Lewis is the director of Essential Media, which works with a number of progressive political parties, including the ALP. He will discuss the finding of the latest Guardian Essential Report with political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm on Tuesday.

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