(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

Yesterday Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed Australia has a new “prime minister for women”, Marise Payne — the implication being that Morrison is by default the prime minister for men. Morrison quickly corrected himself after being challenged by journalists, calling Payne the “primary minister for women”.

Call it misspeaking, a Freudian slip or Morrison testing the waters before backtracking, but his philosophy is clear: sexism and inequality is a women’s issue, and should therefore be siloed away to be dealt with by women.

Separate but equal?

It may come as a surprise to some in the government, but women don’t exist in a vacuum. Childcare is an issue for parents, not women. Workplace sexual harassment is an issue for employees and companies, not women. Sexual violence is an issue for society, not women. As a new report shows, even women’s salaries are not only an issue for women: domestic violence risk increases by 35% when women start earning more than their partners.

Of course, women can be part of the general population when it suits Morrison– let’s not forget Morrison’s “women use roads” retort when faced with criticism that the latest federal budget left women behind.

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The idea that these are “women’s issues” is absurd — especially when we consider that women make up 51% of Australia’s population. Men absolutely should recuse themselves when discussing sexual violence; take a seat and learn from women. But that doesn’t mean that women’s policy issues should be devised separately and in parallel to others. Putting women in charge of addressing men’s behaviour, instead of across-the-board accountability, is also problematic.

Tokenism does nothing

Morrison and women’s PM Payne will co-chair a new “cabinet taskforce” that will include all the women in the ministry. Morrison also announced Amanda Stoker as the new assistant minister for women, Anne Ruston as minister for women’s safety, and Jane Hume as minister for women’s economic security.

These appointments are all highly questionable. Stoker is anti-abortion and has said women were “playing the gender card” when they came forward with bullying claims. Hume previously attempted to implement policy to allowed domestic violence victims to use their superannuation to flee violent situations (which has since been abandoned). Payne in her role as minister for women has been largely silent and inactive in addressing any of the major reckonings currently underway.

What actually needs to change?

Instead of re-announcing offices and roles that already exist, what Morrison needs to do is give these people more power to do their job.

Since the ‘90s, the scope and relevance of the Office for Women (part of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) have been cut back. The office wasn’t consulted over JobSeeker or JobKeeper, the end of free childcare despite the ongoing effects of the pandemic, the $150 million scheme to boost women in sport, or the latest round of tax cuts.

Morrison should find a minister who can actually devote time and energy to being a minister for women, unlike Payne who also heads the Department of Foreign Affairs. Representation here would be great, too — as this recent reshuffle showed, it’s slim pickings when it comes to women Morrison trusts in his cabinet.

Morrison could implement in full the recommendations of sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Respect@Work workplace sexual violence report released a year ago, and give Jenkins more wide-ranging powers to investigate harassment. Importantly, harassment legislation needs to stop being framed as simply a discrimination issue — it’s a workplace health and safety issue.

We also need the women’s budget statement, dropped under then-prime minister Tony Abbott in 2014, to be re-implemented, rather than a piss-weak women’s economic security statement as released this year seemingly as an afterthought.

Finally, there have been decades of reports about women’s safety sitting on Morrison’s desk — from improving social response to sexual assault and developing new measures of success when coordinating domestic violence funding, to recommendations to close the gender pay gap.

The information is there, he just needs to utilise it instead of siloing it away under new titles.

What real changes should Morrison make? 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.