Australian PM Promotes Women in Cabinet to Quell Criticism

Cabinet changes, new task force . . .

Earlier this week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison promoted several women in a cabinet ‘reshuffle’ and announced a new ministerial task force on gender equality. The country’s new Attorney General (Michaela Cash) and new Minister of Home Affairs (Karen Andrews) are women, and the number of women in cabinet increases by one, to seven out of 22 – still under one-third. The new task force, to be co-chaired by Morrison and Senator Marise Payne, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, includes all female ministers plus select male colleagues, including the Treasurer. Observers see the task force as a forum for identifying the most important issues affecting Australian women and policy options.

Government battered by scandal, polls . . .

The changes come as PM Morrison and his government have been roundly criticized for their slow response to months of cascading scandals centred on sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and misogyny. In February, the now-former Attorney General, Christian Porter, was accused of the rape of a former student debater in the late 1980s, while the now former Minister of Defence, Linda Reynolds, was widely seen to have downplayed the severity of a former staffer’s alleged sexual assault by a senior colleague. Both Porter and Reynolds have been demoted but remain in cabinet. Both are on health leave. Recent polls suggest Morrison’s standing has suffered on the back of these scandals.

Is this substantive change?

The extent to which the task force on women’s equality will drive policy addressing systemic gender inequality in Australia is uncertain. Both Morrison and Senator Jane Hume, who recently became the Minister for Women’s Economic Security on top of her existing role as Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy, have stated they see little room to add new women-focused spending in the government’s forthcoming budget due to be announced next month. The government’s lack of attention to gender equality in its October 2020 budget update drew criticism for being disappointing for women and gender equality. Time will tell whether these changes are the first steps in addressing systemic sexism in Australia or elaborate ‘pinkwashing’ for political purposes.