Mate? Tick. Three times, in fact. The Sharks? Tick. Sporty T-shirt, weekend dad cap, laconic style? Tick, tick, tick.

At the weekend Scott Morrison sent a jovial message of congrats to Phil “Buzz” Rothfield at The Daily Telegraph for notching up 45 years covering footy.

Maaaaaate.

The PM is far more comfortable ticking those blokey boxes than he is dealing with the alleged rape(s) of women. In the roiling wake of Brittany Higgins’ allegation that she was raped by a Coalition staffer in the hallowed confines of Parliament House, The Australian on the weekend revealed another alleged assault by the same man. And this morning a third.

Morrison has pledged to make Parliament House as safe as possible. Will he? Or is he just ticking more boxes?

He says the ministers and staff who “had knowledge of this matter” did the right things. There’s an inquiry under way that you wouldn’t want to “pre-judge”. The events are sickening; they’re not confined to the Coalition; not even confined to parliament; we’re going to do all we can.

Crisis comms 101: show empathy, deflect, commit to action. Tick, tick, tick.

That commitment to “make sure that this workplace is as safe as possible” is superficially noble, but fundamentally another tick-a-box exercise. It’s bullshit.

What Morrison has committed to is yet more reviews. Four of them. And Morrison has unofficially endorsed a revolutionary complaints handling process — one that doesn’t actually involve the utterly unprotected parliamentary staff complaining to the very people who hold their fragile careers in their party-loyal hands.

There are several layers of bullshit to sift through here.

The murky waters of who knew what, and when.

The dark sediment of Canberra culture, and how much yet another inquiry can settle it.

And the foundational bullshit: will the federal government actually do everything it can to make sure the workplace is “as safe as possible”?

The danger is that it’s just creating more boxes to tick. An independent body? Even something resembling an HR department to which assaulted staff can turn? Better processes (any processes!) for people to follow when the proverbial hits? Clearer policies (in the post-bonk ban era) that make it a little more obvious that you really shouldn’t rape people?

If all of these boxes are ticked, they’ll just bring parliament into line with most corporations and institutions. And we know that doing all that is still not enough to make workplaces “as safe as possible”.

To fulfil that promise, a tectonic shift is necessary: tackling male privilege. Not very comfortable territory for male politicians.

Serendipitously, two researchers from the University of New South Wales, postdoctoral fellow Natalie Galea and Scientia Professor Louise Chappell, published a paper last week that looked at male-dominated workplaces and the power of male privilege (summary in The Conversation here). They picked the construction industry and the political sector as prime examples of sausage fests.

Chappell and Galea flip the story of women’s disadvantage and powerlessness into one about men’s advantage and powerfulness. They argue that it’s quite clear and easy to implement “formal” rules and practices such as actual HR processes, for example.

It’s much harder to deal with “informal” institutions. The daily shit. The privilege.

“The first important feature of privilege is its invisibility to those who enjoy it and, like gender, it is framed before we know it … Men tend not to see their gender privilege; whites tend not to see their race privilege; ruling-class members tend not to see their class privilege,” they wrote.

For example, you can have a formal non-discrimination policy and argue that preselections are based on “merit”, and then shrug your shoulders when the informal and discriminatory policy keeps delivering men into safe seats.

“The male privilege in Australia’s parliament has given its members such a sense of exceptionalism, they seem to think the standards of the corporate office … should not apply to their workplace,” they wrote.

Some stats. A major report into community attitudes found almost one in three young men thought women who’d been raped had led a man on and then regretted it, and just over one in three thought it was “natural for a man to want to appear in control of his partner in front of his male friends”.

One in eight thought if a women was raped while drunk or on drugs she was at least partly responsible.

One in four thought women liked being “persistently pursued, even if they are not interested”.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, women are far more likely than men to have been assaulted, and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly male.

This is a gender issue.

If Morrison is serious about doing everything possible to make parliament — and Australia — a safer place, he has to face up to the nebulous and nuanced reality of male privilege.

It’s possible that if he actually used that phrase heads would explode all over the backbench, and there might be some splatters in the front. And this is the bloke who used an International Women’s Day event to say: “We want to see women rise … We don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.”

Is the prime minister really going to do everything possible to make parliament as safe as possible? I call bullshit. He might just do enough to bring it into line with the rest of Australia.

Tory Shepherd is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist. After studying anthropology she joined The Advertiser, where she still writes a regular column. Her work also appears on ABC Adelaide and in Cosmos magazine.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

Peter Fray

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