PM wakes up to the danger of missteps on treatment of women

Scott Morrison has taken the first step in a long journey to rescue his government by doing something simple: giving more women more influence.

His reshuffle is a good start in showing Australians he is serious about acting on the treatment of women, even if it is only about the structures within the government rather than policies for the world beyond.

The prominence of Marise Payne (left), who stood alongside Pm Scott Morrison in announcing the changes, is an important signal.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The Prime Minister has to use the next six weeks to design policies for the May 11 federal budget that can prove his changes are more than window-dressing.

The reshuffle included significant promotions for women and no similar advancement for men. The effect is to give female ministers a bigger say – not only on issues that relate to women but also on policies across the board.

The biggest move was the elevation of Karen Andrews, one of the government’s most capable ministers, from industry to home affairs. This is one of the largest portfolios in cabinet, central to national security.

Other women gained bigger roles. Social Services Minister Anne Ruston joins the government’s leadership team and gains more recognition for her role in women’s safety. Financial Services Minister Jane Hume, one of the government’s best advocates, adds women’s economic security to her title.

The restoration of Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price to the cabinet – she was demoted and lost the environment portfolio after the last election – is a move from an old playbook. John Howard brought Amanda Vanstone back to cabinet after a demotion; Vanstone had a long cabinet career from that point.

While Peter Dutton becomes Defence Minister, he loses the home affairs empire he built over more than six years.

The prominence of Marise Payne, who stood alongside Morrison in announcing the changes, is an important signal. The Foreign Minister and Minister for Women spoke at length in Monday’s press conference on women’s economic security and tougher policies on the harassment of women on social media.

Payne’s role was a big shift from a press conference 12 days earlier when Morrison announced aid for Papua New Guinea. Back then, the Prime Minister gave second billing to Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly. In a slight to a senior minister, Payne spoke third. It seemed as if the women did not matter.

The new taskforce of female ministers, chaired by Payne and joined by some of the men in cabinet, has the potential to make real changes to government policy and direction. Its first test is the budget, in which there will have to be more funding for women’s safety, economic security and advancement.

Morrison has woken up to the danger of getting things so wrong on the treatment of women over the past weeks. The reshuffle is a downpayment to voters on future policy action. He can lose the deposit if he gets things wrong again.

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