If the prime minister’s wife is going to play a role in the nation’s affairs — including advising Scott Morrison on how to understand the impact of sexual assault on a young woman by imagining it was one of his girls — then it seems only fair to know what Jenny Morrison brings to the job.
If Jen Morrison is to be a de facto member of the cabinet, what are her qualifications?
Theirs is the most traditional of marriages. Jen’s role is clear from the times Scott has invoked her expertise. It boils down to how to look after the family (Jen was said to be out buying jigsaw puzzles last year to help get the family through COVID lockdown) and providing the skills on how to understand the emotional impact of events. Morrison’s call on Jen to explain why sexual assault matters to women wasn’t the first time he’s drawn on the family to personalise the politics.
The dreaded “as a father of girls” got a run last October to explain how Morrison “got it” about the impact on women of being forcibly strip searched at Doha airport.
Morrison has no compunction about dragging out Jen (and the girls) to build his “member for Bunnings”, footy fan, family man brand. He was at it again last Sunday, posting a photo on Facebook of the two of them as teenagers as a Valentine’s Day tribute — which apparently had to be shared with the rest of the world. Photos of the family are plastered over the PM’s official website. For all that, though, Jenny Morrison has largely been a seen-but-not-heard presence in the background.
She was briefly in the spotlight last year when she made a video appeal for women to look after their health during COVID. She has only given one extended television interview, with Channel Nine, soon after moving into Kirribilli House. A portrait emerged of a woman happy to play the role of wife and mother while Scott built his career.
Faith was central: “When things are really hard and you feel like you’re dragging along a heavy weight, you don’t have to. There’s someone you can talk to about it. That’s how I see faith. It’s a relationship.”
Did she feel that she had a purpose to fulfil now that she was the prime minister’s wife? Long pause: “My purpose in life is very simple. It is basically to be kind to everyone you can. ‘Cause life is really about a series of connections with people.”
Connections. Relationships. Looking after the family. It is the definition of a traditional marriage, one perhaps more traditional even than the 1950s white picket fence union of John and Janette Howard.
The gender division of roles is also the defining characteristic of conservative Christian union.
“There is a view of men and women in Christianity that is very rigid and inflexible about roles,” said Dr Josie McSkimming, a former evangelical church insider who counsels Christians about their experience of fundamentalism. “In the creation order, women are created to manage relationships and men are created to manage tasks.
“It means men could rely on women folk to help them read emotional signals and it means as a man you can outsource the emotion if you are a blockhead or a duffer.
“Man is the head of the family and the woman is in loving submission. And if you deviate from that you are moving away from God.”
McSkimming’s analysis — men do things while women feel things — makes sense of Morrison’s position, startling to many, that he understood the gravity of the Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation issue when Jenny suggested he think like a father first and think what it would be like if it was one of “our girls”.
When challenged by a reporter about the logic of only understanding sexual assault because of having daughters, Morrison seemed genuinely nonplussed.
“In my own experience being husband and father is central to me, my human ah being,” Morrison struggled for the words, “so I just can’t follow the question you are putting to me.
“[Jen and I] discussed it. That’s how we deal with these things.”
Morrison frequently blurs the personal and political. It is, after all, an effective political technique. But his daggy dad schtick has obscured how immersed he and Jenny are in the most conservative of religious experiences.
Where it began …
Morrison and Jenny met as young teenagers at a Christian camp. In late teenage years they were part of the (Open) Brethren Christian assembly at the Waverley Gospel Chapel in Sydney. They then moved to the Maroubra Baptist Church. Later they would join the Shirelive (now Horizon) Pentecostal church in Morrison’s electorate. Then on to the evangelical behemoth, Hillsong.
The move from Brethren to Baptist to Pentecostal was a not uncommon trajectory, says Graham Hill, principal of Stirling Theological College in South Australia.
“The groups are very similar even if they look different on the outside,” he said. “They are all based on a literal reading of the scriptures and they all have a deep concern for conservative values.”
These values cover the gamut of issues: gender relationships, sexuality and sexual assault — which was interpreted through the lens of women presenting a temptation for men.
Hill has previously criticised Morrison for making a “politically motivated” visit to his local Pentecostal church with Jenny and camera crews in tow. In Hill’s view Morrison represents an old-fashioned version of conservative Christianity which “might go down well” with older conservatives but not a younger generation who found his positions to be “at odds with the gospels”.
“What’s alarmed and infuriated many Christians is that you might only care about these issues if you have a daughter,” Hill told Inq.
McSkimming says Morrison’s background of growing up as an evangelical, marrying very young — 21 — and with likely limited sexual experience meant he was exposed to the so-called purity culture, which implicitly makes women responsible for all sexual events, including assault.
“Morrison’s template of a relationship is that women would be married before having sex, not getting drunk and being violated in parliament house,” she said.
Morrison’s invocation of Jen as emotional expert on the impact of rape might just have been the clearest sign yet of what it means to have a conservative Christian in the Lodge. And it has taken a truly gruesome scandal to reveal it.