TOGETHER FOR CHANGE
The Australian Women's Weekly|April 2021
As allegations of sexual assault and harassment swirl around our federal Parliament, Samantha Trenoweth sits down with some of the most powerful women in the land to consider the issues that have shaken the nation.
Samantha Trenoweth

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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN'S WEEKLYView All

“I might die, and you're the only one I can tell...”- Sharon Stone

The Hollywood star reveals the harrowing details of the night family and friends rushed to her bedside as doctors fought to save her life.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

How we stay married …Peter & Bridget Helliar

The comedian may have written a show about maintaining a long-lasting relationship, but it’s his wife Bridget whom he credits with teaching him how to keep the marital magic alive.

9 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

The year that tested Gladys

The NSW Premier has steered her state through fires, floods and a pandemic, and had a secret relationship publicly outed. Gladys Berejiklian suffered some chinks in her armour, but The Weekly finds she’s still standing resolutely and defiantly strong.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

The cult of wellness

The “wellness” industry generates trillions of dollars but is it making any of us well, or just an unregulated, untested con?

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

Could she be innocent?

She has been called Australia’s worst female serial killer, but now some of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds say Kathleen Folbigg’s four children could have died of natural causes.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

How to start a kindness revolution

The worst times often bring out the best in human nature, so don’t waste what you have learned in this global crisis.

5 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

Nowhere to run

People living in remote Australia are 24 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family and domestic abuse

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

Carla Zampatti 1942 - 2021 Family always came first

Just before Christmas, Carla Zampatti invited The Weekly into her Sydney home for a deeply personal photo shoot with her daughters and five of her grandchildren. No one could have imagined that this joyous day would be the iconic fashion queen’s last major interview.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

Who was that girl?

When she arrived in New York on her 18th birthday carrying $600 and a stolen camera, Alice Lee was looking for something. One month later, she’s an unidentified murder victim. But who was she?

9 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021

The Duke of Edinburgh 1921 - 2021 Prince among men

He was born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, became a brilliant British naval officer, but chose love and a life of unfailing public service as the Queen’s devoted consort.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2021
RELATED STORIES

BUFFY & HER PUPPY!

The Akita to Happiness Los Angeles, April 21

1 min read
Star
May 17, 2021

Their First Apartment Together Launched a Small Business

Just out of NYU, David Zhang and Sarah Kim turned their Bushwick rental into a home-furnishings lab.

2 mins read
New York magazine
April 26 - May 9, 2021

Baby No. 2!

FACING HURDLES GETTING PREGNANT A SECOND TIME, KHLOÉ KARDASHIAN OPENS UP ABOUT THE PROCESS.

1 min read
Star
April 05, 2021

days of our lives

BED AGAIN On their wedding day, Xander is shocked to find “Sarah” (really Kristen in disguise) in bed with Rex. “Sarah” claims she’s in love with Rex and sends Xander packing. Meanwhile, the real Sarah tries to break out of the secret room, to no avail.

4 mins read
Soap Opera Digest
April 05, 2021

INSIDE BRITNEY'S NIGHTMARE

A SHOCKING NEW DOCUMENTARY EXPOSES HOW BRITNEY SPEARS WAS USED AND ABUSED BY PEOPLE SHE TRUSTED.

2 mins read
Star
March 01, 2021

NOSH ON THIS

When it comes to bagels, Sam Brickman doesn’t mess around. He’s got the recipe down to a science to achieve the bread’s signature texture—crisp on the outside and oh-so-soft on the inside.

3 mins read
Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine
February 2021

Into the DEPTHS

PAINTING THE FIGURE NOW EXPLORES HOW WE VIEW THE HUMAN FORM THROUGH A MODERN LENS.

5 mins read
American Art Collector
December 2020

No Experience Needed

Experienced Plant Enthusiasts Share Their Tips and Favorite Plants

4 mins read
Central Florida Ag News
January 2021

AMAZON BUYS 11 JETS FOR 1ST TIME TO SHIP ORDERS FASTER

Amazon said this week that it bought 11 jets from Delta and WestJet airlines to boost its growing delivery network and get orders to shoppers faster.

1 min read
Techlife News
Techlife News #480

220 minutes with … Sarah McBride

Strolling Wilmington with Delaware’s history-making new state senator.

6 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021