A prime minister who lives by the photo op dies by the photo op – and Grace Tame owes Scott Morrison nothing

·4 min read

“Cold,” one news outlet reported of the young woman’s expression. “Frosty,” said another. “Visibly uncomfortable,” ran a subheading, describing the manner that affected her pose beside the man – hung back, unsmiling, eyes hooded with mistrust.

Yes, the scene described was of outgoing Australian of the Year, survivor advocate Grace Tame, obliged into a photo event with prime minister Scott Morrison. The occasion was a formal morning tea to commemorate the end of Tame’s eventful year in the AOTY role.

“Tense,” explained the copy under the published photographs.

Twitter, of course, is under no such expectation of equanimity or politeness as old mastheads. “Iconic behaviour,” said Brisbane artist @nordacious of the resulting photograph. “Dear @TamePunk, I do believe you have unlocked a new level of legendary status today,” echoed trade union leader @SallyMcManus. “Fuckin Lolllllllll,” wrote performer @ChristieWhelan.

Related: Young women like Grace Tame weren’t socialised to shut up when authority figures speak – and it feels like progress | Katharine Murphy

Tame herself did not make a comment at the event. There was no ruckus and she did shake the prime minister’s hand – yet one imagines the prime ministerial advisory circle need only have seen the look in Tame’s eyes to know the damage was done.

Never has Australia had a prime ministership so self-conscious of image-based branding. Morrison’s most intimate encounters with meal preparation, poultry housing and even his own pants are so relentlessly thrust into the national consciousness that one longs to de-invent photography.

You can understand the political energy for an aggressive visual strategy. It was footage of another young woman’s refusal to demur to the PM’s authority that dealt Morrison’s “daggy dad” image such damage some deadly fires and a whole killer pandemic ago. Remember fire-ravaged Cobargo? The prime ministerial press office would prefer you didn’t, and would prefer you to look at this curry … these Christmas lights … or barre.

The image of the reticent Tame on Tuesday was so reminiscent of that earlier PR disaster, it was with unsurprising alacrity Liberal MPs and conservative media spruikers leapt into their attempts to discredit her. Liberal senator James McGrath chose to scold her as “childish” and dared her to hand back her honours. Peter van Onselen decided she was “ungracious and rude”.

Sorry, boys. Live by the photo op, die by the photo op. And Grace Tame owes Scott Morrison nothing.

This was the Scott Morrison who told the march of sexual violence survivors and their allies who Tame accompanied to Parliament House that the women were lucky to have not been “met with bullets”. The Scott Morrison who ignored key recommendations in the Respect@Work report, the Morrison who did not demote the minister who called alleged rape victim Brittany Higgins “a lying cow”.

Related: Grace Tame and Scott Morrison’s frosty meeting sparks praise and condemnation

This is the Scott Morrison who elevated to assistant minister for women one Amanda Stoker – after Stoker had promoted men’s rights activist Bettina Arndt, who herself had platformed the man who raped Tame as a child. The Scott Morrison who responded to Tame’s speech at last year’s Australia Day awards ceremony with the remark, “Well, gee, I bet it felt good to get that out.”

Morrison, a world leader and adult man, who infamously had to have it explained to him by his wife why sexual violence was bad.

Yet the prime minister’s talent for image manipulation, media management and blame shifting has repeatedly saved his political skin.

One suspects a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters in the backrooms of the prime minister’s office are already drafting the copy for the PM to place the blame for Tuesday’s Grace Tame incident on the Victorian Labor premier, Daniel Andrews.

Truly, it may have worked a week ago.

But a week ago Morrison had not yet suggested that children should drive forklifts. That announcement so profoundly revealed his disconnection from the electorate that, like teeth ripping into a raw onion skin, the excuses and obfuscations layered over his failures have been suddenly ripped away.

It is a rule of human behaviour that to gain advantage over an opponent you evaluate how the source of their strength may be exploited as a weakness.

Related: Slo-Mo’s summer of missteps means Australian politics has ceased to be a game | Peter Lewis

And it is a truth universally acknowledged that leaders who coat themselves with Teflon can rarely keep a firm grasp on any details. Nothing in Morrison’s political behaviour or public comments would suggest he has been paying the kind of attention to Tame’s work that he really should.

As an advocate and champion for the survivors of sexual violence, Grace Tame has spent a long year explaining how power works, from the perspective of someone who learned so cruelly and unfairly – and so young – what it is like to have absolutely none.

On Tuesday, Grace Tame demonstrated in a single photo shoot an understanding of power that goes deeper than even a sitting prime minister’s. What a warrior. What a great Australian.

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