Paul Bongiorno: A sorry moment for the Prime Minister

On the day when thousands marched around the country demanding justice for women, the Prime Minister and his most senior colleagues refused to join them.

A huge rally outside Parliament House in Canberra was snubbed, as Scott Morrison and his Minister for Women Marise Payne preferred to stand on their dignity – making a late offer to receive a delegation in their offices.

Adding insult to injury it was obvious an edict had gone out to all cabinet ministers (who were not away on stress-related sick leave) to similarly boycott the demonstration.

Many on the government backbench were unimpressed with what some saw as an unnecessary show of hubris, and along with assistant minister Jane Hume, turned up to listen to what were uncomfortable home truths not only for the government, but for all sides of politics.

Brittany Higgins with march organiser Janine Hendry outside Parliament House in Canberra on Monday. Photo: ABC

It reminded one Liberal of John Howard’s refusal to say “sorry” to the Stolen Generations of Indigenous children and the discouragement of government MPs to attend Sorry Day marches.

Before Senator Hume attended the rally, she urged the organiser Janine Hendry to take up the Prime Minister’s “exciting” offer – after all, world leaders come to Canberra to have such meetings.

But Ms Hendry turned down the offer – she had “read the room”, she said.

Ms Hendry had come to Canberra representing tens of thousands of women across Australia and “unlike our Prime Minister, I’ve heard what they’ve said”.

In reality, we’ve come to the Prime Minister’s front door. I’d like to see him walk across the threshold and come and see us.”

Sexual abuse and assault of women, she says, happens behind closed doors.

Just as it (allegedly) did in Parliament House, and it’s very important to start getting some transparency around that.

Mr Morrison, like Mr Howard before him on the “sorry” issue, simply doesn’t get it.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese who, along with his leadership team attended the rally, told Parliament the Prime Minister didn’t so much have “a tin ear” but was a “wall of concrete”.

Labor’s Richard Marles, Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong and Kristina Keneally stride out to the protest in Canberra. Photo: AAP

He said the Prime Minister needs to listen, and echoing what he heard on the front lawns of the Parliament, he said women are angry about what has happened to them and they want leadership, which they’re not getting.

A petition of 95,000 signatures that called for an independent inquiry into Christian Porter was presented to the Parliament, but immediately hit the concrete wall.

Instead Mr Morrison praised Mr Porter, who he said in “a private capacity” is pursuing defamation against the ABC and that’s the proper place for these matters to be dealt with “in a court of law”.

There is no suggestion Mr Porter will stand aside while this law suit is slugged out in the Federal Court by some of the most expensive and high-powered lawyers in Australia.

Had the rally organisers taken up Morrison’s offer to meet him, he would have done all the talking and not much of the listening.

At the beginning of Question Time he said he would have told them what his government is doing.

The Prime Minister gave a long defensive spiel while ignoring calls for an inquiry into whether Christian Porter is a fit and proper person to hold his job as the first law officer of the land.

Independent senator Rex Patrick says such an inquiry would be broader than the historic rape allegations, which, in itself, raises serious questions as to why Mr Morrison and Mr Porter are resisting it.

Lawyer and Sydney independent MP Zali Steggall is clearly unimpressed with Mr Porter’s lack of urgency implementing the recommendations of the Respect@work inquiry.

For 14 months, key recommendations have lain on Mr Porter’s desk, so she has moved a private members’ bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act, closing a loophole to ensure sexual harassment is illegal in all circumstances covering politicians and judges.

In the meantime, Mr Morrison gives every sign he intends to brazen out the controversies buffeting his government.

The latest Newspoll showing Labor in front coming at the end of the past two horrible weeks should at the very least be an amber light before the voters turn it to red come the next election – whenever it is.

Women across the political spectrum are “roaring” with one voice.

Former Liberal MP Julia Banks told the Melbourne rally the nation had reached a “turning point”.

Union leader Sally McManus at the Canberra protest promised women “will change the world. That’s what we are going to do”.

The wall of concrete is cracking.

  • For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 13 11 14

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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