Well, that was quick. After one mishandled press conference and a handful of tidying-up articles, it seems we’re already into the “backlash” stage of the Me Too reckoning within Australian Parliament.
It’s playing out much as you’d expect. There are attempts to tear down women making a stand, and a lot of misdirection. It’s a mix of a “what are you gonna do?” with “you just can’t please some people”.
There’s a seeming inevitability to it. In her 1991 book of the same name, US writer Susan Faludi popularised the term as a recurring phenomenon: “[backlash] returns every time women begin to make some headway towards equality, a seemingly inevitable early frost to the brief flowerings of feminism”.
So far, this particular backlash is struggling to get traction in the mainstream Canberra narrative. Every move gets derailed by another backbench Facebook post (Hello, Andrew Laming) or a mistimed text in the NSW Parliament (Hello, Michael Johnsen).
The personal attacks have been so ham-fisted they’ve generated a backlash to the backlash. But a poorly implemented plan is a plan all the same.
The government and right-leaning media will be taking comfort from a hard fact revealed in last week’s Essential Report: while Morrison’s approval has dropped 16 points among women since mid-February, his approval among men is unchanged.
For the four years that Me Too has been in the media, undermining the credibility of women (through defamation among other things) has been central to the backlash strategy. The alleged victims in the current parliamentary imbroglio have been the target since the story broke open in February, with accusations of lying through to slut-shaming.
The Canberra media narrative has — by and large — leaned towards believing the women should be given their voice, but the Essential Report suggests that below the surface in the wilds of conservative Facebook groups and Sky After Dark viewers (and probably much of the Liberal and National Party backbench) that narrative remains heavily contested.
Last week The Australian Financial Review‘s Aaron Patrick turned the attack on the women news leaders of the Canberra press gallery, criticising them for “angry coverage that often strayed into unapologetic activism”.
Journalists — mainly women — struck back, particularly defending Samantha Maiden, the reporter from News Corp’s news.com.au who broke the original story about the alleged 2019 rape. (She’s “difficult” according to the AFR hit. Oh no!)
However, the Patrick story explained just what Morrison was up to the week before when he angrily raised claims of harassment within News Corp. At the time, it seemed a fumbled “everyone does it” defence unwisely directed at his primary media supporter. But according to the AFR it was a planned shaft (and warning) at Maiden.
On the weekend, News Corp turned on activists and advocates. The associate editor of The Courier-Mail, Kylie Lang, asked of Grace Tame: “Since when does being Australian of the Year give you licence to personally attack our prime minister?”
In The Weekend Australian, the masthead’s columnists asserted that “the claims of pervasive misogyny” by “large sections of the left and its allies in the media” were because “the green-left is hyperventilating about another skirmish in their identity/culture wars”.
Meanwhile, the government and its media allies are casting around to find a footing for part two of the backlash: diversion. The weekend before Easter, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan was blaming the sexualisation of modern culture. Last week, the prime minister was blaming social media.
In The Australian, editor-at-large Paul Kelly replaced “the emotional demand by women to re-set the norms of respect and justice” with a focus on “plans to reconfigure our economic and social polity in the more unpredictable and dangerous post-pandemic world“. Others were whataboutting Indigenous disadvantage.
Easter and the break in parliamentary sittings until May has given the government a breather, vaccine mismanagement notwithstanding. The question is: will that give the backlash the opportunity to recalibrate?