(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

For a prime minister who claims to be committed to making real change to address what is universally agreed to be a toxic culture in politics toward women, Scott Morrison’s record of achievement is very limited.

This is the leader who recently welcomed back to the deputy prime ministership accused sexual harasser Barnaby Joyce; who was wholly incurious about whether sexual assault allegations against Christian Porter are true (and uninterested in any inquiry to determine their truth); whose NDIS minister referred to alleged sexual assault victim Brittany Higgins as a “lying cow”; and whose male cabinet colleagues, we learn this week from former MP Julia Banks, included another sexual harasser among their ranks, so far unidentified.

Without the benefit of Morrison’s assurances that he is committed to making Parliament a safe workplace for women, one might be mistaken for thinking his tolerance of sleaze — and worse — is high indeed.

Julia Banks, however, has shone a light on Morrison’s own behaviour regarding female colleagues which frames his seeming tolerance for the alleged conduct of his ministers. She explains in her book, and interviews to support it, how Morrison secured her agreement to delay her 2018 announcement that she would not be recontesting her seat after the coup that removed Malcolm Turnbull, and to not speak to the press, and claims Morrison and his office used that to frame Banks as emotional and unstable.

After Banks claimed bullying had gone on in relation to the coup, Morrison responded on August 29, 2018 by saying:

I have spoken to Julia today and I spoke to her yesterday as well. I think the events of the last week, they have been quite dramatic events … [and] those events take a pretty high human toll inside the Parliament.

Then when pressed by journalists on whether Banks’ claims about bullying would be investigated, he went further

What is important right now is Julia’s welfare. I know she is going to take a bit of time out between now and when the Parliament comes back. My first concern is for her welfare and wellbeing and she is taking the time to ensure that that is taken care of and she has my support fully in that. So what am I doing right now? I’m supporting Julia and reaching out to Julia and giving her every comfort and support for what has been a pretty torrid ordeal for her …

He then — while insisting he has “no truck with bullying” — dismissed Banks’ claims by saying he “act[s] on facts, not on allegations”. This was a consistent theme in Morrison’s response regarding bullying. “There have been no names provided to me about any of that,” he said when Leigh Sales asked him about former Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi’s claims about bullying.

The narrative that Banks was emotionally exhausted and needed “support” continued from Morrison. Two days later, asked about whether he was dealing with Banks’ allegations, he shifted focus: “I’ve been in touch with Julie [sic] as you know, and I particularly want to thank [MP] Nola Marino again and [then-MP] Kelly O’Dwyer as the minister for women who’s been getting around our colleagues after what was a very bruising week, last week”.

Asked about Banks again two weeks later, after she made a statement in parliament again on bullying and the importance of quotas in the Liberal Party, Morrison replied “I’ve been talking closely with Julia now for several weeks. It’s been a pretty harrowing time and my approach has been to get around and support colleagues and ensure that there’s the support available that they need.”

That is, every time Julia Banks raised a specific issue of public interest — bullying of MPs — Morrison ignored the issue and instead portrayed Banks as unwell and in need of support. He distracted from a serious issue by feigning a top-priority interest in a colleague’s welfare.

Josh Frydenberg, Banks’ Victorian colleague and purported friend, wasn’t much better. At the same time as Morrison was doing this, when Barrie Cassidy asked Frydenberg about Banks’ bullying allegations, the newly minted treasurer replied “she has obviously had a tough time, and I’ve been speaking to her regularly”.

The term “gaslighting” is wildly overused now, and deployed about pretty much any behaviour that offends anyone. But this is a pure and perfect example of the idea: Banks’ issues of substance were successfully evaded by Morrison portraying her as overly emotional and having failed to cope.

Compare and contrast the treatment of another MP who quit in the wake of Turnbull’s ouster, Craig Laundy. Laundy quit the ministry in disgust after Turnbull was dumped, and then announced in March 2019 he wasn’t recontesting his seat. He, too, expressed concern about bullying, calling for parties to establish internal panels to which MPs could take complaints about bullying.

Laundy’s departure from politics was rumoured months in advance, but not once did Morrison seek to portray him as an emotional wreck in the wake of the coup.

“Craig, when we discussed what he was doing back in August of last year, he stepped down from the ministry at that point. And these are matters for Craig and his family and at present he is continuing forward,” Morrison said in January 2019. Asked again about Laundy’s possible departure in March, Morrison offered “I’ve been in contact with Craig since last August when I became prime minister and those matters will be addressed when we’re in a position to do that.” When Laundy urged the party to adopt quotas, Morrison’s response included nothing about how he needed support and had had a rough week.

As Banks notes in her interview with Crikey’s Amber Schultz, it took a while, but people are beginning to see through Morrison and his techniques. Right from the outset of his prime ministership he was deploying techniques of spin, distraction and denial in order to evade embarrassment and accountability.

And right from the outset, he was gaslighting female critics.