Brittany Higgins, the former Liberal staffer whose rape allegations sparked a national discussion about sexual harassment and assault in politics, made a surprise return to Canberra on Monday to speak at one of several March 4 Justice rallies held across the country.
“We are all here today not because we want to be here, but because we have to be here,” Ms Higgins told a crowd of thousands outside Parliament House — the place where she was allegedly assaulted in 2019. “We fundamentally recognise the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place, and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institution,” she said.
“We are here because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight.”
It was the 2021 update of a classic women’s march battle cry that has linked protesters around the globe for years: “I can’t believe we still have to protest this crap.”
But protest, they did. Barely a month after Ms Higgins first went public with her allegations, tens of thousands of Australians gathered in cities around the country to call for change in Federal Parliament, and for and an end to gendered violence and sexual harassment in the community more broadly.
The anger and frustration fuelling the marches has been spurred by what many see as the Morrison Government’s poor handling of Ms Higgins’s allegations and, more recently, separate accusations against the Attorney-General Christian Porter, who has strenuously denied allegations he raped a woman in 1988, long before he entered politics.
Is this moment different to those before it?
When she first put out an “angry tweet” asking women to join her in protest at Parliament House, March 4 Justice founder and Melbourne academic Janine Hendry said she imagined a few friends might join her cause, that a carload of allies might cobble together some placards and head up the Hume to Canberra.
But as so many speakers and marchers have made startlingly clear, women’s anger runs deep — back generations, beyond the halls of Parliament — and Ms Hendry’s quiet fury quickly exploded into a collective outpouring of rage.
As a cultural moment, it’s undeniably huge: the sheer numbers of (mostly) women streaming through cities to state parliaments to say “enough” is a symbol in itself — a reflection, maybe, of the pervasiveness of sexual violence: almost two million Australians have been sexually assaulted at least once since they were 15, and the overwhelming majority of offenders recorded by police are men.
It’s also significant because too often women don’t speak out about rape and abuse: because they’re ashamed, afraid of being bullied back into silence or not being believed, or acutely aware of their dismally low chances of getting justice. As NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller told a parliamentary committee last week, police pursue just 10 per cent of sexual assault complaints received and only 10 per cent of those are successfully prosecuted at trial.
But the question now is whether this moment is different from the many “tipping points” that have come before it and, crucially, whether it will trigger the change so many have been hoping and fighting for for decades — not just in politics, but in all institutions and workplaces, in the criminal justice system, in schools and churches and homes and quiet suburban streets.
Will political leaders take the rage and grief behind these marches seriously — will they listen, and take steps to improve the systems and cultures that have failed so many victims, or not?
From podiums around the country, calls for change rippled through large crowds brandishing colourful signs. In Melbourne, Wil Stracke, the deputy secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council, told thousands of marchers at Treasury Gardens they were “entitled to be safe”. “We are entitled to respect,” Stracke said, as a plane flew across the city pulling a banner that read, “Women vote too”. “And it’s f***ing past time that we were treated as equals.”
Speaking at the Brisbane rally, Aboriginal elder Aunty Deborah Sandy said it was “about time” women were heard, and taken seriously. “My great grandmother was raped, my grandmother was raped and my mother was raped when the oppressors came here,” Aunty Deborah told the crowd. “When the great grandmothers tried to speak up to what those fellas did, [they] just moved them away like this young girl [Brittany] Higgins.” But it was nothing new, she added: “This stuff has been going on for a long time, and it is about time it stopped for the safety and protection of all women and workplaces.”
Lack of action is fuel to the fire
In Parliament on Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged protestors’ frustration and disappointment about what had “not been achieved”, and reiterated a point he’s previously made — “that all cases of gendered violence should be referred to the authorities”. “As terribly difficult as it must be, going to the police and making a statement is the only way to achieve justice and to ensure the perpetrator can no longer harm anyone else,” Mr Morrison said.
“The Australian government is committed to ensuring all Australian workplaces are safe and free from sexual harassment and assault,” he continued. “The government commissioned the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect @ Work [report] in the women’s economic security statement in the budget.”
But that report — the result of an 18-month national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces — was launched more than a year ago by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, and the government is yet to formally respond.
It’s that lack of meaningful action — or even any response — that has been kindling to some women’s anger, and fuelled their frustration that political leaders have not done enough to tackle sexual violence and harassment in their own workplace, or others. For some, it’s another example of what sexual abuse survivor and Australian of the Year Grace Tame named at the Hobart rally as a recurring theme: “Behaviour unspoken, behaviour ignored, is behaviour endorsed”.
“I feel like I’ve been bashing my head against the wall recently, because these are not explosive revelations, these are common sense ideas,” Ms Tame told the crowd on Monday.
“We’ve seen a lot of focus in our governments on responses to child sexual abuse and sexual assault and violence against women as if we just have to accept it as a fact of life in our society, and I do not believe that is right.”
But while it can be “terrifying” to talk about sexual violence and abuse, Ms Tame said, “the fear of doing nothing should outweigh your fear of doing something”. And the activism and outpouring from women in recent weeks, she said — the “cultural shift” that has been happening” — had given her hope.
If one of the barriers to progress is “silence”, she said, “it gives me hope, because the start of the solution is quite simple: making noise.”