When Australia’s attorney general last week outed himself as the minister accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in 1988, his denial was emphatic.
“The things that I have read did not happen, and to suggest that they could be forgotten is ridiculous,” said Christian Porter, who oversees legal affairs and national security, before starting a period of mental health leave.
For Prime Minister Scott Morrison, that was the end of the matter.
The alleged victim didn’t file a police statement before she died, age 49, last year. After police closed the case last week, citing a lack of “admissible evidence,” Morrison refused to order an independent inquiry into the allegations, which emerged after statements by the alleged victim were anonymously sent to the Prime Minister’s office and two female politicians from other parties.
For many Australians, however, the case is not closed. Far from it.
Across the country, thousands of women are planning protests for March 15, when they will present a petition to Parliament House calling for the government to investigate all allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by Members of Parliament and their staff.
Yet their demands go far deeper than parliament. They want structural and cultural change to achieve equity across the country, in schools, workplaces and the justice system.
“We don’t want another report, (or) someone saying, ‘Oh, we’ll look into the matter.’ This has to change, right here, right now,” said Janine Hendry, a reluctant protest organizer behind the March 15 rallies.
“I didn’t think at 58 years old, I would be an activist,” Hendry added. “Nor did I think at 58 years old I would be taking to the streets to protest against this stuff. I thought we’d moved beyond it – but we haven’t.”
Hendry inadvertently tapped into a well of anger when she typed a quick tweet last Sunday, venting her frustration that women in Australia are still fighting for equality in 2021.
In just six days, more than 22,000 people joined her Facebook group, March 4 Justice. The group now has a presence on multiple social media platforms.
It’s not just Hendry. In London, another Australian woman, half Hendry’s age, is trawling through thousands of emails detailing alleged sexual assaults on schoolgirls in Australia. Chanel Contos’ movement started with a few friends sharing stories of sexual assault. It’s since morphed into a website and petition calling for education and change.
The two groups represent different demographics of Australian women – and both are angry.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that tripped the wire on women’s fury in Australia, though it could have been two weeks ago when Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal Party staffer, alleged she was raped in the defense minister’s office in 2019.
Higgins said she was inspired to come forward by Grace Tame, a former victim of grooming and sexual assault, who was named Australian of the Year in January for her work urging other women to speak out. They have listened.
Higgins’ allegation prompted an apology from the Prime Minister, who announced a number of investigations into the incident and insisted the culture in parliament would change. However, Morrison’s explanation of his decision-making process raised eyebrows.
“Jenny and I spoke last night,” Morrison said, referring to his wife. “And she said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’
“Jenny has a way of clarifying things.”
It led one female reporter to ask: “What would happen if men don’t have a wife and children? Would they reach the same compassionate conclusion?”
Critics seized on Morrison’s choice of words as evidence he didn’t comprehend the issue.
Australian support hotlines:
1800RESPECT: 1800 737 732Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636Lifeline: 131 114LGBTIQ+ Violence Service: 1800 497 212
The same was later suggested of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who referred to Higgins’ allegations as “he said, she said.” His words were interpreted as an attempt to minimize Higgins’ allegation.
Since then, the level of discourse has disintegrated further, with Higgins threatening to sue Defense Minister Linda Reynolds for allegedly calling her a “lying cow.” Reynolds apologized for the comments, which Morrison said were uttered in private during a “very traumatic week.”
Discussion over who said what and when soon shifted to reports of another bombshell allegation – that a cabinet minister was accused of raping a teenage girl more than 30 years ago. The woman wasn’t alive to tell her story, but her friends sent documents, including old excepts of the woman’s diary, to the Prime Minister and senators from rival parties. A cover letter urged them to act, according to one senator who received it.
Morrison waited three days to respond amid public speculation on whether he should sack or suspend the minister, perhaps during an independent investigation. He didn’t do either, and accepted Porter’s denial.
The reaction was swift. “I can say quite genuinely that I have never felt the outpouring of white-hot rage from as many women, but also actually quite a few men, as I have in the last 24 hours,” said Georgie Dent, executive director of The Parenthood, a non-profit group for parents, on Tuesday. “The idea that they can carry on with business as usual is completely untenable.”
It starts in school
Australia did have a #MeToo moment, as women around the globe shared stories of sexual abuse in 2017. But it was severely curtailed by the country’s strict defamation laws.
Under Australian law, accusers have to prove their claim is true – unlike the US, where alleged offenders must prove the claim is false. Consequently, many women stayed silent, while other people who shared their stories anonymously ended up being named.
But recent events in parliament have set off an alarm that is ringing across the country.
“This is the start … this is Australia’s #MeToo moment,” said Jacqui True, professor of international relations and the director of Monash University’s Centre for Gender, Peace and Security.
Until recently, former Sydney high school student Contos hadn’t heard of Higgins or the other allegations at the top of Australian politics. She moved to London last September to start a master’s degree in gender, education and international development, but in the last three weeks she has been inundated with other stories of sexual assault from former students.
It started with an honest conversation with friends about how they’d been assaulted by boys at school. The same names kept coming up, with similar stories of abuse, so they began listing them in a Google document and invited others to join. Now, there’s a website with more than 2,000 testimonies from students across Australia, and a petition urging Australian schools to start teaching sexual consent sooner, including what constitutes sexual assault and how to respond.
Contos said they were only taught about consent in their final years of school – and by then, for many, it was too late.
Names have been removed from the stories, so as not to defame anyone, but each entry is tagged with the author’s school. Overwhelmingly, the students say they didn’t give consent, and many times their alleged attackers didn’t seem to know what that meant anyway.
“They think it’s okay to convince a girl to perform oral sex; they think it’s okay to push her head down slightly,” said Contos. “They think it’s okay to guilt-trip them and say, ‘Why did you come upstairs with me if you don’t want to do this.’ They think it’s okay to get a girl really drunk on purpose and have sex with them. They think it’s okay to walk in on their friends doing sexual things and laugh and take photos.
“It’s not okay, but they think it’s okay because it’s what everyone does, and it’s what seems normal.”
Contos doesn’t know Hendry, the March 15 protest organizer. But Hendry has heard about Contos’ campaign.
“The stuff that Chanel is uncovering is testament to the fact that (misogyny) is alive and well and we need to knock it on its head,” Hendry said.
Contos met with the head teachers of nine schools last week to teach them how to talk to their students. On Friday, the New South Wales Police announced it was working with school administrators to address the issue of sexual violence in schools across the state.
Australia is considered a wealthy country. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, its economy had been expanding for nearly 30 years, driven largely by the export of resources to China.
However, its increasing wealth hasn’t translated to greater gender parity. Between 2006 and 2020, Australia’s place on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index dropped from 15 to 44. While the country scores highly for access to education for girls and women, they’re not reaching parliament and boardrooms in the same numbers as men.
“What it means is that the returns to women’s education and educational achievements are actually lost, because they’re not translated into key positions and impact in the political and economic sphere,” said True, the director of Monash University’s Centre for Gender, Peace and Security.
True puts that down to structural issues, including the lack of affordable paid childcare to allow women to return to work. “The workforce is based on that male as the breadwinner norm in Australia,” she said.
Even during the pandemic, when one or both partners with children had to work from home, most women took on the main role as carer. A survey by of more than 7,000 Australians by the Australian Institute of Family Studies from last May to June found that even with both partners at home, women were five times more likely to take on the role as primary carer.
Women reportedly also lost their jobs faster than men during the pandemic.
According to government figures from February 2021, fewer Australian women work full-time than men, though they fill more part-time roles. After finishing university, women are paid less than male graduates, the research revealed – and by the time they retire, their median retirement savings are 21% lower than men.
From 2011 to 2016, the fastest-growing cohort of homeless people was women over 55 years old, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission. “And the number one reason for women’s homelessness is the experience of gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence,” said True, from Monash University.
So far this year, six women have died due to family violence, according to the Counting Dead Women Project, run by women’s advocacy group Destroy the Joint. Last year, 55 lost their lives – roughly one woman every week.
In the halls of power, women hold 31% of seats in Australia’s 151-member lower house, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In the upper house, the gender ratio is almost equal. But of the Prime Minister’s 22 key leadership positions, 16 are held by men and six by women.
“The culture of politics is highly masculinized and it is not conducive to gender equality, or to women’s participation; it’s a very tough woman who can make it in Australian politics,” said True.
“The perspective on what it means to be a woman in Australian society is lost … which means that we compound the problems, we continue not to address the gender inequality, because we simply do not have those who can voice and shape the policies in our government.”
Work to do
In 1984, the government sought to make Australia a more equal place when it passed the Sex Discrimination Act. The law made it illegal to discriminate based on gender and prohibited sexual harassment.
Yet last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission said the pace of the country’s efforts to address sexual harassment was “disappointingly slow,” and sexual harassment in workplaces was “widespread and pervasive.” According to its most recent survey in 2018, one in three people – women and men – had experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years.
The situation in Australia was not wildly different from elsewhere, said Michelle Ryan, who begins a new role as inaugural director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University in Canberra in July. The institute was founded by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who famously called out misogyny in a speech to Parliament in 2012.
“This is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it one that is particular to Australia or to Parliament,” Ryan said, from the University of Exeter in the UK, where she’s working as a professor of social and organizational psychology.
“What these incidents do, however, is bring home the importance of the need for research, and evidence-based policy and practice, to address the sexual harassment in the workplace, and the other inequalities that women face in their careers.”
For others, they also bring the need for direct action. On March 15, women around the country are urged to wear black and join marches in their cities, if they can’t travel to Canberra.
They are preparing for a fight. According to an Essential Poll released on Tuesday, two-thirds of 1,074 respondents thought the Australian government was more interested in protecting itself than women. The survey was conducted between February 24 and March 1 – before Porter, the attorney general, came forward and stated he would not resign.
The Prime Minister says Porter should be afforded the presumption of innocence, along with everybody else, and that calling an independent inquiry would undermine the rule of law in Australia. “We are governed by that rule, not the rule of the mob or anybody else,” Morrison said. However he added that he would welcome an inquest if one was ordered by the South Australian coroner.
Support for the Morrison government grew during the pandemic – the country has recorded fewer than 1,000 Covid-19 deaths and vaccines are being rolled out. But on the issue of gender equality, the Essential Poll released Tuesday showed 76% of respondents believe there is “still a long way to go.”
“If the calculation has been made that this is an issue that won’t concern voters, I think they’re mistaken,” said Dent, from The Parenthood.
True, from the Centre for Gender, Peace and Security, said now is the time for the government to listen.
“The current cabinet do not understand, not only the degree of anger, but the degree of violence from men,” she said. “And I think maybe this is a time where people actually need to learn a little bit more.
“They need to listen to survivors, they need to understand those stories.”