Rape allegations have shaken Canberra to its core – and may now be hitting the PM in the polls

Peter Lewis
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

For anyone inclined to dismiss the rape allegations that have engulfed federal politics as a passing scandal, riddle me this: in a week the prime minister rolled out the vaccine and stared down big tech, why has he taken his first significant hit in polls since we went into lockdown?

The voices of the women who have come forward and of the female journalists who have broken these stories is shaking Canberra to its core. And these voices appear to be transforming what has been a remarkably stable 12 months in politics.

Related: As gut-wrenching scandals shake the government, Scott Morrison fumbles when he should lead | Katharine Murphy

I base these comments on a series of separate data points from this week’s Guardian Essential report that were in the field just after the allegations by the former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins were first aired and while separate allegations by a woman against a cabinet minister were made public.

The first thing I observed in this week’s research was a seven-point drop in the approval of the government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Sixty-two per cent approval is still solid, but the drop was the biggest hit the government had experienced. As vaccines were now rolling out with strong public support, this doesn’t make sense.

Secondly, we picked up a double-digit deterioration in perceptions of the PM’s personal attributes, which again had been riding high since he had begun taking the advice of medical experts. This deterioration has been wholly driven by perceptions of female voters, as this table comparing this week’s results and May 2020 results illustrates.

Which of the following describe your opinion of the prime minister, Scott Morrison?

Over the last year, men’s perceptions of the PM have barely changed, while on some indicators Morrison has suffered double-digit deterioration among female voters.

While he has been at pains to emphasise his distance from Higgins’ allegations and his disappointment with ministers and staff who he has maintained kept him in the dark, he seems to be wearing the political opprobrium anyway.

Perhaps it was his clumsy “Jen” moment, when he summoned empathy for Higgins at the urging of his wife.

Or maybe it’s the sense that he responds to human tragedy like a boxer in a sparring session, ducking and weaving from reporters, whose calls for accountability are seen as risks to be avoided rather than invitations to lead. As a separate question in this week’s report suggests, his government is seen as being more interested in protecting itself than those who have been allegedly assaulted.

But the research suggests something deeper than the public response to the traditional political questions of “when did he know?” sort of accountability – the broader expectation that comes with leading an institution widely perceived to be an unsafe place for women.

When asked to compare different industries, politics comes out behind all-comers – even the entertainment industry.

How much would you trust the following institutions to ensure work is a safe place for women?

As the PM learnt during the bushfires you don’t need to “hold a hose, mate” to lead a nation through a climate emergency. What you need to do is pony up, take responsibility and confront the situation, regardless of technicalities.

That’s what Morrison did in his best moments of 2020 when the world turned on its head 12 months ago, establishing a federal-state governance structure, listening to experts, helping those in need. Absolving himself of responsibility makes us feels like we are back in Cobargo.

Related: Without an inquiry, Scott Morrison's ministerial standards don't amount to a hill of beans | Richard Ackland

Like the 2020 bushfires, real accountability is about stepping up and recognising the broader drivers of a particular trauma, rather than just taking it at face value. And that’s where this prime minister faces his greatest challenge.

Here’s the news, Scott. Australia still has a gender equality challenge. It’s there in the real wage differentials between caring work and “manly” pursuits, the superannuation system that is wilfully blind to parenting, the expensive early learning system, and the ongoing outrage of sexual and family violence. Women are still woefully underrepresented in decision-making forums.

Our final graph shows the political problem for a government that has already been accused of being gender blind. It shows that half of us think gender has been dealt with; guess which half?

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements about gender equality in Australia?

So what should Morrison do in the face of these findings? It’s not about just taking counsel from his wife or relying on the staff or doing the minimum required to make it all go away.

The prime minister has relied heavily and successfully so far on the “daggy dad” persona. But daggy dad is now overseeing a toxic workplace culture that the public believe is unsafe and has damaged women. He has a senior cabinet minister facing the most serious of allegations, and others in this government facing accusations of cover-ups. Daggy dad faces half the population wanting equality, while the other half think it’s been done.

This is what accountability looks like. And, as the voters in this week’s poll shows, accountability is a two-way street. To quote the late, great Helen Reddy, these are numbers too big to ignore.

• Peter Lewis will discuss the latest Guardian Essential poll results with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm on Tuesday