Prime minister Scott Morrison says he has been listening to the “lived experience of women” in the past month, vowing to do better to fix the culture of parliament while welcoming a broader focus on the “rubbish and crap” endured by women.
Morrison also signalled a shift on how the government would manage beleaguered attorney general Christian Porter – who has denied an historic rape allegation and is currently on leave – saying advice from the solicitor general would inform Porter’s fate on the front bench.
Speaking after reports on Monday night that a group of Coalition staffers shared lewd images of a sex act on a female MP’s desk, Morrison said he had been “shocked and disgusted” by the report and vowed to soon unveil more concrete measures to “get this house in order”.
“It is shameful. It is just absolutely shameful,” Morrison said of the report aired on Network Ten that has resulted in one Coalition staffer being sacked.
“I was completely stumped, as I have been on more than one occasion over the course of this last month. All of this has been shocking and it has been disgraceful.”
Morrison could not say if the sacked staff member would receive a termination payout, and said the government was still attempting to identify the other staff members involved.
He said the latest incident had capped off a “traumatic” month that had started with the report of Coalition staffer Brittany Higgins revealing she had been raped by a colleague in a ministerial office.
“We must get this house in order. We must put the politics aside on these things, and we must recognise this problem, acknowledge it, and we must fix it.”
Acknowledging “many had not liked” his response to both the Higgins rape case and to the protest of women at Parliament House, Morrison said he had been “listening carefully” over the past month to the experience of women, including from colleagues, friends and family.
“Let me tell you what I have heard. Women are too afraid to call out bad behaviour for fear of losing their job or being intimidated in their workplace – that is not okay.
“I have heard that women are overlooked, talked over by men, whether it is in boardrooms, in meeting rooms, in staff rooms, media conferences, cabinets, or anywhere else – overlooked and treated like they have nothing valuable to contribute.
“I have heard about being marginalised, women being intimidated, women being belittled, women being diminished, and women being objectified – that is not okay.”
“Whether this is unconscious deafness and blindness, or whether it is wilful malevolence that is behind all of this, it must be acknowledged, it must be called out, and it must stop.”
He said the events had triggered women right across the country who had “put up with this rubbish and this crap” for their entire lives.
When asked why it had taken him a month to realise the “lived reality” of women, Morrison said it had been a “terribly difficult month”, which had also required him to attend to the Covid pandemic, the vaccine rollout and the floods.
“I was shocked and appalled when I learnt of the situation involving Brittany Higgins, and I have been shocked and appalled by all of the other matters that have come forward since,” Morrison said.
“But as the month has progressed and as I [engaged] with so many women, what has become the issue, and rightly, is that this is not just about the terrible things that have happened to one woman in this place.
“This is far bigger than that and I think that is the voice that has arisen over the course of this past month. This was a shout about what is happening across Australia, not just these specific events.”
When asked if he had also changed his mind on whether Porter should remain in the position of attorney general, Morrison signalled a shift, saying he was considering a report from the solicitor general.
“I have received that advice and am now taking advice through the department regarding how that sits with ministerial standards and I will be making further decisions on that matter, and I will alert you to those when they are made,” Morrison said.
While saying he was “committed” to addressing the cultural problem within parliament house that has been laid bare over the past month, Morrison said he would wait for a report from his department’s deputy secretary, Stephanie Foster, along with the review being undertaken by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins before unveiling further measures.
“Today is not a day for me to list out a list of further actions.
“Today, Australian women, but Australians more broadly … need to know that this place has heard them and that I have heard them.”
He also flagged he was prepared to give serious consideration to quotas to increase the number of women in the party – a measure successfully adopted by Labor that has long been opposed by the Liberal Party.
“We tried it the other way and it isn’t getting us the results so I would like to see us do better on that front,” Morrison said.