Canberra, Australia – Australian politics appears set to face a reckoning after a wave of allegations of sexual assault and harassment committed by multiple politicians and staff at Parliament House in the country’s capital.
Allegations have so far been made against a male political staffer, alleged to have raped a female colleague in 2019, against Attorney-General Christian Porter, accused of sexually assaulting a female acquaintance when both were teenagers in 1988; and against a senior aide of a member of parliament, alleged to have sexually harassed several teenage girls.
“The 1990s saw a sudden rise in women in parliament, but even now, only a quarter of politicians are women,” Blair Williams, a research fellow at The Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, told Al Jazeera.
“Our parliaments are about representation for men, by men. It is a toxic culture that excludes women, resulting in the enabling of what we’ve seen recently.”
Just weeks after child sexual abuse survivor Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year, former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins went public with allegations that she was raped in Parliament House in March 2019.
Higgins had just begun working for minister Linda Reynolds at the time. Less than a month into her role, Higgins says a senior male staffer assaulted her on a couch in Reynolds’ ministerial office late at night. The man was fired the following week for what Reynolds, who is now defence minister, described as a security breach.
Two issues are at the heart of this initial scandal: first, how a young woman could be raped inside Parliament House itself, and second, how the ruling Liberal Party handled the incident.
Higgins said she received little support and was made to feel that reporting the incident to the police would end her career and negatively affect the election that was just a few months away.
Three other women have since come forward with allegations against the same man.
Attorney-general faces questions
Barely a fortnight after Higgins made her allegations, Parliament House was rocked again. This time, a senior minister was accused of raping a 16-year-old woman during a debating competition trip in 1988.
The man was initially not named in the media due to Australia’s strong defamation laws, but after days of rumour, Attorney-General Christian Porter identified himself as the accused. Porter would have been 17 years old at the time of the incident.
Both Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have repeatedly rejected the allegations. Morrison has also so far refused to hold an independent inquiry into whether Porter is a fit and proper person to hold the position of attorney-general, the nation’s first law officer.
“[Porter] is a fine attorney-general,” Morrison told the media on Wednesday. “He is an innocent man under the law.”
— Samantha Maiden (@samanthamaiden) March 12, 2021
Porter’s accuser committed suicide in June 2019, meaning the allegations cannot be taken to a criminal court. Similar problems were encountered during the trial of former Melbourne Archbishop George Pell for child sexual abuse, in which one of two alleged victims had also taken their own life.
Meanwhile, allegations have also emerged against Frank Zumbo, a senior aide to Craig Kelly, an MP for the Liberals. Six young women have made formal police complaints against Zumbo, saying he was physically and verbally inappropriate with them.
One woman, Anna Hobson, was just 16 years old when she interned in Zumbo’s office. Hobson told ABC Australia that young female interns were required to greet Zumbo with hugs and kisses, and that he inappropriately touched her on multiple occasions.
Parliament’s working culture
Zumbo has denied all allegations but has been under police investigation since April 2019. An apprehended violence order that forbids him from going within 100 metres of one former intern has already been granted.
The Morrison government has now appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to lead a review into parliament’s working culture. She is expected to file a preliminary report by July and the full findings by November.
“In my time working in this area and particularly looking in workplaces over the 30 years, I’ve never seen any moment like this,” Jenkins said in an interview with the ABC.
“We’re at a turning point.”
Accusations that Australia’s political culture is sexist and unsafe for women are nothing new. In October 2012, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard accused then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott of sexist behaviour towards her. Gillard was frequently targeted not only for being a woman, but also for being unmarried and not having children.
“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man; I will not,” Gillard said in her famous speech. “If he [Abbott] wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”
Gillard made the speech not long after the speaker of the house, Peter Slipper, was accused of sending sexually explicit messages to a male aide. Slipper later resigned.
Experts say women’s participation in Australian politics has never been truly welcomed, and that has contributed to the continued toxic environment.
ANU’s Williams points towards a viral petition from current and former students in the state of New South Wales that is calling for education on sexual consent to start earlier. Thousands of women’s testimonies on the petition say they were sexually assaulted and harassed by students of boys-only private and selective schools.
“These schools are where the men becoming politicians are coming from,” Williams explained.
“It’s no wonder what happens at Parliament House, seeing as it happens that the schools that channel men to Parliament House.
“Men want to be in charge, so they create supporting institutions and networks that foster men’s power over others,” she added.
“Porter has wanted to be PM since he was a child … it’s fostered in them that they’re there to rule over others.”
Women’s rights advocates across the country have expressed their dismay that institutional cultures supporting sexual violence still exist in Australia in 2021.
“We can’t just rely on politicians alone to regulate themselves and make parliaments safe,” said Tanja Kovac, CEO of Gender Equity Victoria.
“If parliaments continue to ignore the ways in which they entrench gender inequality by their own conduct and rules, we will continue to see cultural problems leading to sexual and gendered violence.”
The Greens’ Spokesperson for Women, Larissa Waters, agrees that the government needs to do more to change institutional tendencies towards becoming “boys’ clubs”.
“Mr Porter’s statement is a message to all survivors of sexual assault and rape that this government does not believe them. It will have a chilling effect on survivors and will almost certainly dissuade others from coming forward,” Waters said.
"I hope the Prime Minister's paying some attention. The rule of law is broken when it comes to rape and sexual assault."@hughriminton's powerful address to Scott Morrison on #TheProjectTV pic.twitter.com/CGBZPteePv
— The Project (@theprojecttv) March 4, 2021
At the March 3 press conference where he tearfully denied all accusations, Porter said he had “always followed the rules” and said he was being unfairly targeted.
“If I stand down from my position as attorney-general because of an allegation about something that simply did not happen, then any person in Australia can lose their career, their job, their life’s work, based on nothing more than an accusation that appears in print,” Porter said.
“My guess is that if I were to resign and that set a new standard, there wouldn’t be much need for an attorney-general anyway, because there would be no rule of law left to protect in this country.”
Sexual harassment and violence is rife across all areas of Australian life.
One in two women and one in four men have been sexually harassed in Australia, according to the 2016 Personal Safety Survey.
In 2017, police recorded 25,000 victims of sexual assault, while data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that 17 percent of women had experienced sexual violence.
Indigenous activists say no one should really be surprised at the allegations of sexual violence now being made against Australia’s political class.
“This country is unsafe for women, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people. Even more so if you are transgender, have no money or are Aboriginal, and the Prime Minister’s comments reinforce the toxic culture that made this happen,” wrote Indigenous activist Meriki Onus in IndigenousX.
“Those that seek to silence us fail to see how related all facets of violence and injustice are and the origins of them in this country. The predatory sexual violence that we see happening [today], started with colonisers.”
ANU’s Williams is also keen emphasise that sexual violence is not limited to one political party alone, nor just to politics itself.
“It’s a wider societal problem of rape culture, misogyny and the patriarchy,” she said.
“These are the issues we need to tackle at all stages of life, from young childhood, to get the message across that sexual violence is not OK.”
Nationwide protests are planned for March 14 and 15, including at Parliament House, Canberra.
Thousands of people are expected to join.
“The current uprising is something I thought I would never live to see,” said Biff Ward, a women’s activist since the 1970s who will be speaking at the Canberra march.
“Every wave does something profound that builds on what has come before.”