(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

There are two basic explanations for why Scott Morrison and his government have so badly mishandled the issues of toxic workplaces and sexual assault since they erupted into public life in February — from the initial “as a father of daughters” silliness to yesterday’s staggering observation that “such marches, even now, are being met with bullets” in other countries.

One is that Morrison, his office and his leadership team are so profoundly out of touch with the 21st century that the rage and calls for action from women — and many men — are completely confusing to them.

The other is that they see these issues entirely through a partisan prism: these are not things that are part of the government’s strategy (economy, vaccines, etc), and these are not Liberal voters anyway, and certainly no quiet Australians, self-evidently, so they represent no threat and do not need engaging with.

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Let them post their petition (the suggestion of the office of the notional minister for women, Marise Payne) and let them be grateful they live in a country that doesn’t open fire on women protesters. The sections of the media that are paying attention to them will get sick of the issue and the government can get back to business as usual.

Either way, it represents a remarkable missed opportunity for Morrison to actually grow into a national leader, or at least give the impression of one, instead of the smirking salesman he is. Or rather a series of missed opportunities. Time and again, Morrison has taken the lazy option of responding in purely political terms: the stolid attempt to downplay the government’s failings in relation to Brittany Higgins; the ever-expanding series of inquiries initiated as she failed to go away; the failure to respond appropriately to Linda Reynolds’ “lying cow” comments; the refusal to read the documents relating to Christian Porter.

At each moment, Morrison could have taken a different approach: a more forceful denunciation of his ministry and staff’s failure to tell him about Higgins (if that’s what it was, for we can’t take Morrison’s word for anything); a proper inquiry into why he wasn’t told, with heads on the line; a real rebuke of Reynolds over her defamation of Higgins; a proactive management of the Porter issue — including actually bothering to read the documents — and a confidential judicial inquiry that would, almost certainly, find no case for the attorney-general to answer, but enable Morrison to declare he has zero tolerance for any such alleged conduct.

As for yesterday’s march, Morrison was doubtless terrified of being booed even if he showed up merely to listen. And no PM wants to look like a badly rattled Kevin Rudd marching out of Parliament House notepad in hand to listen to pink batt protesters. But smart politicians sense opportunity in adversity.

There’s a story about Lyndon Johnson during the 1960 presidential campaign being besieged in a hotel in Dallas — by that stage regarded as the “City of Hate”, rightly as it turned out — by a mob of furious far-right protesters. Instead of shrinking from them, LBJ theatrically declared that there should never be a day when he couldn’t walk his lady across a Dallas street, took Lady Bird by the hand and ventured out into them. The resulting television images of Johnson and his wife being abused and spat at outraged even conservative southerners and helped deliver Texas for the Democrats.

John Howard did something similar when he agreed to address furious rallies of gunowners, conscious of the potential threat to himself.

If Morrison had had the guts to go out and endure jeers and boos — no one ever died from being booed, Scott — and be seen to listen, it might have done far more for his image with voters than any number of stunts and announcements. Instead, his response about shooting protesters will go down as one of the more tone-deaf remarks by any prime minister.

It wouldn’t have taken much. But sometimes a politician is too busy spinning to see what’s happening right in front of him.

Is ScoMo tone deaf? Or is he dizzy from spinning? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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