*Content warning for discussion of rape and sexual assault/harassment, violence and suicide.
Australian women took to the street on March 15th; not long after police in the United Kingdom broke up vigils in memory of murdered woman, Sarah Everard. They were marching to demand that the Australian Prime Minister take sexual assault allegations seriously. They stood on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra to demand that he establish an independent inquiry into historical rape allegations against one of the Government’s own ministers, Attorney-General Christian Porter. There is a reckoning occurring around the world in politics regarding male attitudes and actions towards their female colleagues. The NY Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing sexual harassment allegations and there are multiple allegations from within the Australian Parliament, with these allegations and the UK example, you could argue that this is politics’ global “Me Too” moment.
In the last two months, the Australian Parliament has been rocked by two sexual assault allegations. The first allegation occurred between two former Liberal Party staffers on the eve of the 2019 Federal Election campaign. Former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins alleged that after a night out drinking with colleagues, she and a male colleague who was considered “a rising star” within the Liberal Party went to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office , it was there that Higgins alleges her former colleague raped her.
Higgins alleges that when she told other staffers and MPs about the situation, she was made to feel as though she would lose her job, particularly if she went to the police. She said that there were conversations where Defence Minister Reynolds told her that reporting to the police was an option, but it felt like they were just ticking a box to get it out of the way and disregarded the seriousness of the crime. It was just before the 2019 Federal Election campaign began and the party dealt with the matter as if it was a political issue to be dealt within the party and not a serious crime that had occurred. Brittany Higgins says that she was told she could either work on the campaign in Western Australia (WA) or go home — so she went to WA. Not long after she returned to Canberra after the election Higgins quit her job as she felt unsupported by her employers.
Higgins first went public with the allegations on the 15th of February of 2021 with the story first breaking on news.com.au before Higgins appeared on Channel 10’s The Project that night. Questions have been raised on when the Prime Minister knew, with Scott Morrison saying he became away when the story broke despite his staff being contacted by the media three days earlier. During a press conference on the matter, PM Scott Morrison’s comments rubbed many the wrong way saying that he had to have a conversation with his wife about what he should do and was reminded of how it would feel if it happened to his daughters, stating that his wife “has a way of clarifying things”. Sexual assault survivor, advocate and Australian of the Year 2021 Grace Tame responded to the comments when asked at her NPC speech saying, “it shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience …and having children doesn’t guarantee one”. The fact that Scott Morrison can only comprehend the horror of the situation after the situation after a conversation with his wife, seems to imply that the only women he cares about are those within his family.
Just as it seemed the Higgins story was quieting down in the media; you could say that all hell broke loose. Louise Milligan, a journalist at the ABC, published a story detailing historical rape allegations against an unnamed cabinet member that occurred at a Sydney debating competition in 1988. New South Wales Police – who would have jurisdiction over the case due to the offence occurring in Sydney – put out a statement saying that the victim contacted them last year about making an official police report. However, due to the pandemic and border closures struggled to work out how to do an official interview to give a statement as the victim was at the time located in South Australia. The victim later contacted them and said she didn’t want to proceed and two days later took her own life. Although former PM Malcolm Turnbull, who was also contacted by the victim has implied he thinks there might be more to the story.
Due to the victim having passed, NSW police say they cannot open an official investigation as they would be unable to interview and cross-examine the victim. Attorney-General Christian Porter revealed himself to be the accused perpetrator and strenuously denied the allegation putting on a teary-eyed performance at a Perth press conference, as he believed denying allegations would clear his name. He has rejected suggestions of an independent inquiry, ignoring the fact that this would allow him to prove his innocence. He would be able to present evidence to the inquiry such as character witnesses and eyewitnesses of his interactions with the victim. The only evidence that could be presented against him is the account the victim wrote of the incident and her journal entries which have already begun to be used to discredit her.
When asked, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that he would not ask for an independent inquiry to be established to investigate the allegations, believing that an independent inquiry was not appropriate and that it would be going against the “rule of law”. He has also resisted calls for Porter to be sacked from the Cabinet and his role as Attorney-General. Private companies and workplaces conduct internal investigations all the time, especially if it’s surrounding allegations of sexual assault or harassment. Any independent investigation into the allegations against Porter would not need to establish a verdict of guilt or innocence but rather whether his position as Attorney-General is tenable given the allegations against him. As Attorney-General and as a Member of Parliament, Porter should be held to a higher standard of accountability than the general public, the conduct of MPs and especially the Attorney-General must be beyond criticism.
Christian Porter has launched a defamation action against the ABC and journalist Louise Milligan over their reporting of the story, despite the fact that Porter was never mentioned by name until he himself revealed himself to be the minister at the centre of the allegations. The ABC has stated they stand by Milligan’s reporting and they have engaged the legal services of former Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson, who also called on the Prime Minister to ask the current Solicitor-General for advice on whether to hold an independent inquiry into the Porter allegations. The legal action Porter is taking against the ABC represents a conflict of interest with his role as Attorney-General however he will not be stepping down from the role while the action is ongoing and instead will be delegating the parts of his role that are related to the lawsuit. Essentially, he’ll be a part-time Attorney-General receiving a full-time wage.
“We are all here today not because we want to be here, but because we have to be here.” Those were the words that Brittany Higgins began her speech at the March for Justice outside Parliament House in Canberra on March 15. Speaking to the crowd of people gathered on the lawns of Parliament she told them how “...for so long it felt like the people around me only cared because of where it happened and what it might mean for them. She went on to share how she “wasn’t a person who had just gone through a life-changing traumatic event, I was a political problem.” Higgins' words were not just about the culture of Parliament or the Liberal Party but Australia itself, citing how “one out of every five women in Australia will be sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime, and if you are a woman of colour, those statistics are even higher.” Saying, “there is a confronting sense of banality about sexual violence in our community.” The view that sexual harassment and even assualt is just something that women have to go through is one that should be relegated to past, although it never should have existed in the first place.
Inside the parliament, another speech was being made one that left many shocked. As Scott Morrison acknowledged the protests, he said that “not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country, Mr Speaker.” He was seemingly referencing the violence in Myanmar, but others took a different meaning from his words saying it seemed he was implying that Australian women should count themselves lucky they aren’t being shot for exercising their right to protest.
The Liberal Party has a serious problem when it comes to attitudes toward women. Australian politics has always been viewed as a boys club —mates protecting mates — but this takes it to a new level. If what happened to Brittany Higgins happened to her in Parliament House, one of the most secure buildings in Australia, then it can happen to women anywhere. Scott Morrison’s handling of the situation has been terrible, and if his usually good approval ratings are anything to go by — women are fed up.
During the writing of this article more allegations of sexual misconduct within parliament have emerged and in a cabinet reshuffle Christian Porter has been moved from Attorney-General to Minister for Industry Science and Technology.