What does it take to bring together women from all sides of politics to stand shoulder to shoulder and demand change? It takes a month like no other in Canberra, and an invitation from The Weekly.
“This month has been very much a breaking point,” says Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. “There is a reckoning going on. I fundamentally believe this. Women have had enough. Decent men have had enough. The politicians and community leaders who fail to see it do so at their peril I think.”
It was a month in which a snowballing sequence of events by turns distressed, angered and shocked Australians.
It began with federal government staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegations that she was raped in March 2019 on the Defence Minister’s couch, and came to believe that taking action would end her political career. Three further alleged victims of that same senior staffer came forward in the days that followed, as did former Liberal staffers Dhanya Mani and Chelsey Potter. They had worked for NSW state and federal government politicians, respectively, and had also reported alleged sexual assaults to their superiors, but had seen no significant investigations nor support for their personal recovery. Then Labor women began sharing allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in a closed social media group.
Meanwhile, the Equal Opportunity Commission revealed it had received eight reports of sexual harassment by MPs or their staff in the South Australian Parliament, which was described by Greens MLC Tammy Franks as a “19th century boys’ club”.
Then finally came the devastating historical rape allegations against the Attorney-General, Christian Porter (who has made a strenuous denial, and has commenced defamation action against the ABC), and a deluge of criticism of the government’s response.
Canberra culture shock
Senator Marise Payne, the federal Minister for Women, admits that she, like all of us, has been shocked by these events. “This has been my workplace for many years,” she begins, slowly, earnestly, weighing every word, but also meaning them. “It is work in which I take an immense amount of pride and which I see as a fundamental demonstration of the power of our democracy. To have our workplace now confronted by these very distressing revelations is shocking. But then, on the other hand, I absolutely recognise that my shock, or my distress, is relatively meaningless in comparison to any individual who has had to experience the damaging effects of assault or harassment.”
She agrees with Sarah that this is a time of reckoning. “It is beyond time that [these issues] were addressed in Parliament House,” she says. “There have been completely inappropriate behaviours in workplaces, complete breaches of people’s right to safety. That’s not good enough and we have to fix it.”
Tasmanian independent Senator Jacqui Lambie is, to some extent, unshockable. “I’ve been in the military,” she says with that nononsense, straight-shooting style that’s become her trademark, “so I’m not shocked at all, to be honest.” But she does believe the combination of sexism and power in Parliament House has become unhealthy. “That’s the environment up there. You’ve got a lot of power going on, so that’s what you’re going to get. That’s how it works. It’s toxic.”
Sarah, who sits alongside Jacqui in the Senate chamber and enjoys her forthrightness, agrees. “Oh absolutely,” she says. “This is fundamentally about a power imbalance, and there is nowhere where the use and manipulation of power is more prevalent than politics.”
In many work situations, women are discouraged from speaking out about sexual harassment and abuse by the threat of shame, blame and irreparable damage to their careers. But in Parliament House, that code of silence is magnified.
“In politics, information is power, and secrets are currency,” Sarah says. “It makes it particularly difficult to reveal what’s really going on. The moment you do, that information is weaponised, it’s politicised, it’s used to bring down one side of politics versus another. The woman at the middle of it – her story is lost. It’s not about her experience anymore. It is about the fact that there is a scandal. So, with Brittany Higgins, the saddest part of what happened to her was that it was managed as if it was a political scandal, not as [allegations of] a serious crime.”
For the victims of harassment and abuse, that can be a deeply isolating experience, and it’s one Sarah knows all too well: “It’s a story I’ve heard over and over again, particularly from young women who have come forward and told me about their experiences, but it’s also how I felt.”
Sarah is sitting in a sunny studio in The Weekly’s Sydney office, casting her mind back to 2018. At the time, then Senator David Leyonhjelm had made a series of denigrating comments about Sarah, both in Parliament and in media interviews. In one instance he told her she should “stop shagging men”, inferring she was promiscuous. Sarah felt the need to stay quiet and tough it out.
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