The PM told journalists to "be careful" as he weaponised a complaint. This is how toxic workplaces persist

The PM told journalists to “be careful” as he weaponised a complaint. This is how toxic workplaces persist

Prime Minister Scott Morrison shared some powerful words Tuesday morning, declaring that things have to change in response to sexual harassment, assault and other misconduct allegations that have emerged from within his party over the past five weeks.

But as I wrote earlier today, Morrison’s speech was utterly devoid of substance and it quickly took a turn for the worse. There were no real announcements. There was no real responsibility taken for the disgusting allegations that have come out in the media, nor any apologies for Morrison’s own comments in recent weeks that even he conceded may have come across as offensive.

Even worse, today’s press conference actually highlighted Morrison’s own role in enabling these kinds of toxic work environments to persist.

In questions following Morrison’s speech, the PM was quickly put on the defensive — so much so that he warned journalists to “be careful”, issuing a warning to those “sitting in glass houses.”

“You’re free to make those criticisms and to stand on a pedestal, but be careful,” he told a Sky News journalist, who had asked Morrison to put himself in the place of a CEO in a large company facing these kinds of misconduct issues.

Just minutes earlier, Morrison had been fighting back tears as he described what he’d been learning from women. He spoke emotionally about the things that women have endured for generations. And he evoked his daughter, his wife, his widowed mother as the “centre of my life” as he shared why these matters are so close to him.

Now, as he took questions from the press gallery, he pushed back on the personal responsibility some journalists were asking from him — by using a rumour that he’d heard about an alleged incident in a news organisation, in order to urge those in the room to “be careful” about what they might want to editorialise or comment on.

Telling people to “be careful” when calling out issues of misconduct, harassment, assault and other things occurring in workplaces is a way to silence people. It’s a way of enabling the toxic culture to persist, suggesting that no one can ever do or say anything about what they have witnessed or observed, because that may connect them in some way to the bad behaviour.

And telling a journalist to “be careful”? That comes across as a threat. As if the PM is suggesting he could use the power of his office to bring down and call out those who question him.

This is a tactic direct out from the Trumpian handbook.

It’s actually horrifying to see Australia’s Prime Minister deploying this strategy, to pull on this mode of defence just as he felt up against the ropes.

Indeed, Morrison actually did use the power of his office in this situation. Speaking live, during a national press conference — possibly without permission from whoever may have been involved in the alleged incident — Morrison raised a harassment allegation he said had occurred within a journalist’s own media organisation, that Morrison claimed is currently with the HR department.

“Right now,” he said in response to Andrew Clennell, the journalist with Sky News, “you’d be aware in your own organisation, that there is a person who has had a complaint made against them for harassment of a woman in a women’s toilet and that matter is being pursued by your own HR department.

“Let’s not, all of us who sit in glass houses here, start getting into that.”

The journalist said he is not aware of such a matter. Later, Sky News released a statement saying it’s not investigating any such complaint.

Morrison used the alleged incident he raised to ultimately defend himself and his position. He used it to argue that “no one individual” can control what happens in Parliament. Just as no “one individual” can control what’s happening in a large organization.

He appears to have “weaponised” the complaint he’d heard about, as Labor Senator Katy Galagher later put it during a senate committee hearing.

“It’s just unbelievable,” she said. “And it’s no wonder women are so angry because you say one thing and then the prime minister goes out and retaliates like that when he’s questioned.

“What about the woman at the heart of that complaint now? National news.” 

As to how the Prime Minister knew about this alleged incident that he raised? Especially when he apparently didn’t know about an alleged rape that had occurred on a couch within one of his own minister’s offices? That’s another question and one that Olivia Caisley later asked the Prime Minister — to which his response was, again, hopelessly inadequate.

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