“Why would you put something that looks like The Handmaid’s Tale out as a photo op?” actor Magda Szubanski asked this week.
She was criticising a staged photo featuring Prime Minister Scott Morrison signing a condolence letter to the royals following the death of Prince Philip. In it, his wife Jenny stands behind him dressed all in black, her dark hair slicked back and her hands clasped behind her. A photo of the Queen is thematically turned towards the camera.
The timing and optics of the picture are questionable given Morrison’s drastically waning popularity among women. Women have been abandoning support for the Coalition in droves following his handling of parliamentary sexual assault allegations.
But among men, Morrison’s popularity has hardly budged. He and his media adviser’s blindness to the optics of such a picture raises a chilling proposition. Is Morrison’s team completely ignorant to how these sort of photo ops can be perceived by women? Or is it deliberately stoking anti-feminist sentiment it believes is rife among key demographics, leavening arguments between the left and the right crucial to distract from other ongoing issues?
‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’
Szubanski’s criticism, initially made on Twitter then defended on A Current Affair last night, blew up. Liberal MP Nicolle Flint called the comment “nasty” and “appalling”. The Herald Sun‘s Rita Panahi accused the left of double standards and “misogynistic vitriol” in criticising Jenny’s appearance.
Szubanski maintains she never mentioned Jenny’s appearance, saying she wanted to highlight the growing influence of “far-right Christians” in political life and to know “what kind of woman” Jenny is (which Crikey has covered).
The influence of religion on Australian politics is a concern that should be addressed. Morrison, as Crikey revealed yesterday, wrote his university thesis on the Christian Brethren church. He and his wife met at a Christian camp, moving from Brethren to Baptist to Pentecostal — groups that have a literal reading of the scriptures and deep concern for conservative values, including gender roles.
Morrison’s siloing away of “women’s issues” as a matter to be dealt with by women is a legitimate concern; as is his appointment of Assistant Minister for Women Amanda Stoker, who has glowing references from men’s rights groups thanks to her association with men’s rights activist Bettina Arndt.
Yet the conversation has shifted away from the creep of Christianity into Australian politics and Morrison’s treatment of women to instead focus on Szubanski’s so-called “hypocrisy”.
Unsurprisingly, women don’t like this constant barrage of sexism and inaction to sexual violence from the Morrison government. This week’s Essential Media poll showed Morrison’s approval from female voters is in freefall, dropping from 65% to 46% since Brittany Higgins’ allegations were made public in February. The Coalition is losing ground in WA, Queensland and South Australia.
But the male vote tells a different story. Support for Morrison among men has largely remained unchanged, dropping only slightly from 65% to 61% during the same period. In a few demographics, support for the PM is up by double digits.
Approval for the PM increased among men aged 18-34 between January and March, from 56% to 67%. Support also rose amongst men in rural areas, from 59% to 70%. And men on lower incomes are also more favourable of the PM.
This polling, however, comes with a number of caveats. The sample size is small and contradicts a recent analysis of Newspoll data, which suggests the Coalition has suffered a flight of male voters over the last three months.
A message to men
Joshua Roose, a senior research fellow at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, told Crikey Morrison had been consciously sending a message to men who believed feminism has gone too far, and the data showed that it was being heard loud and clear.
“Every time he puts on his hat and goes into the Cronulla Sharks change room and shakes hands with the players, he’s attempting to mobilise this sense of working-class masculinity. It’s an element of his strategy. He’s not necessarily supporting anti-women hate groups, but he refuses to budge on things like sacking Laming,” he said.
Roose pointed to a 2019 Ipsos poll that showed 40% of Australian men believed that, when it comes to giving women equal rights, things had gone “far enough”. This, he said, showed there was still deep-seated anti-women attitudes in the community.
“The vast majority of men in this country continue to see women’s rights through the spectrum of having daughters or sisters or mums. So when Morrison came out and spoke about Jenny, that was tapping into that idea.”
While Morrison may not be going out of his way to tap into the men’s rights cohort, he certainly seems to benefit from keeping some of them as part of his constituency.