When you see Jenny Morrison proudly sitting next to and holding hands with her husband on national television, you can take a good guess that the election season is just around the corner.
Since his prime ministerial ascension, Scott Morrison has carefully reinvented himself as the average suburban 'daggy dad' - an ordinary, likeable, everyday bloke. From staged photographs of Morrison building a chicken coop and a cubby house for his two daughters, cooking curries for friends and family, or donning boardshorts and thongs, to casually slipping mentions of "Jenny and the girls" into press conferences, he has seemingly perfected his dorky "everyman" image. But as Leche Blaine makes clear in his 2021 Quarterly Essay, this is a charade - a fusion of "Hawke's ocker common touch on the base of Howard's suburban conservativism, producing the perfect mishmash of a mate and a dad". As a WASP from the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Morrison manufactured the "daggy dad" mask to appeal to aspirational battlers in outer-suburban electorates by emulating the bloke next door.
Morrison's wife and daughters are essential props for this persona. He frequently deploys "Jenny and the girls" in his curated Instagram posts, during election campaigns and even when it comes to more serious matters. In the wake of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins going public with her allegation that she was raped by a colleague in Parliament House, Morrison only announced a review into workplace culture at Parliament after a discussion with Jenny the night before, who asked him to "think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?" He acknowledged that "Jenny has a way of clarifying things" and, as a husband and father, that he would make sure "any young woman working in this place is as safe as possible, as I would want for my own daughters". Though Morrison attempts to use his wife and daughter as a moral compass and to deflect criticism - especially against accusations of sexism - he has widely been condemned for failing to see women as people in their own right, deserving of dignity and safety.
This is part of a larger trend of (usually male) politicians using their families to their political advantage. Research has shown that male political leaders, like Morrison, benefit from "public fatherhood" for three reasons. First, it can make them seem kinder, more reliable and authoritative, while those with young children gain the added bonus of seeming more virile and youthful. Second, airing the details of their home lives can highlight their alleged normality and personability. And lastly, family issues are a big part of politics, and leaders can therefore demonstrate their policy positions and values through their role as a father. It makes sense, then, that male politicians parade their families during election campaigns, from Chloe Shorten softening Bill Shorten's image in the leadup to the 2019 election to Tony Abbott notoriously rolling out his daughters on election night in 2013. It's as common a sight in a campaign as the notorious kissing of a baby.
Morrison is banking on the likability of his wife, especially when it comes to fixing his persistent 'woman problem'.
This was abundantly evident on Channel Nine's 60 Minutes segment, "Meet the Morrisons: Aussie PM's secret weapon for re-election". Secret weapon Jenny - not Morrison - was the focus of the episode and, as this engineered puff piece revealed, she will likely be a key part of his political strategy for the upcoming election. As a "daggy dad", Morrison is banking on the likability and appeal of his wife, especially when it comes to fixing his stubbornly persistent "woman problem".
Political wives seem useful for more than marketing purposes - they can also be used as a political shield. During the interview, Jenny verbalised what Morrison couldn't about the awkward encounter with former Australian of the Year Grace Tame and the recent leaked text messages saga. She even described Morrison as "married to the job", despite the running joke that he "doesn't hold a hose" - that is, that he lacks leadership and responsibility - based on comments he made in response to the backlash for holidaying in Hawaii while Australia burned in the worst bushfire crisis in the nation's history. Jenny shielded Morrison from this dilemma, too. She offered an apparently sincere apology, confessing that "I thought I was making the right decision for my kids. I obviously was wrong." All the while, Morrison sat next to her and nodded as if he remained blameless.
While Morrison can certainly use his family for electoral appeal, it is not an option for many politicians. In my PhD research examining media coverage of women prime ministers, I found that these leaders were often tied to their family roles, but it was not to their benefit. Men's families are largely seen as an extension of their identity whereas women are defined by their marital and parental status. Women in politics cannot simply roll out the family when it's politically expedient as they risk judgement about their romantic relationships or decisions to have or not have children.
It's never questioned whether a man can have both a career and a family - because this has long been the norm - but working women have had to deal with incessant questions of "who's looking after the kids?" implying they have made the selfish choice of professional over domestic fulfillment. Or, if they don't have children, like our first woman Prime Minister Julia Gillard, their empty fruit bowls are judged and they're vilified as unrelatable to the electorate.
Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are the first Prime Minister/Treasurer combination with young children in four decades, yet no one is doubting their abilities to lead the country for this reason or worrying about their children. It's assumed they have a supportive wife happily keeping domestic bliss. And, if that 60 Minutes segment is anything to go by, Morrison is more than happy to use this assumption to his advantage.
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