Melbourne, Australia – Tens of thousands of people have marched in protest across Australia amid widespread shock at allegations of sexual misconduct in the country’s federal parliament and growing concern that the legal system is failing women who are victims of abuse and violence.
People took to the streets on Monday not only in the capital Canberra but other towns and major cities including Sydney and Melbourne.
In recent weeks, former parliamentary staff member Brittany Higgins has alleged that she was raped by an MP, while historical rape allegations against Australia’s attorney general, Christian Porter, have also resurfaced.
Allegations have also been laid by six women against a senior parliamentary aide Frank Zumbo, drawing attention to what many critics say is a toxic culture of masculinity within the nation’s federal parliament.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to refuse to hold an independent inquiry into the allegations against Porter, and on Monday also refused to meet protesters on the parliament’s lawn in Canberra.
While Morrison instead invited protest leaders inside to discuss the issue, the move was viewed as yet another example of the secretive and hidden nature of the government’s dealings with allegations of sexual assault within the corridors of power.
Melbourne protester, Tory, who preferred to be known only by her first name, told Al Jazeera she was a survivor of sexual assault herself.
She said the lack of response by Scott Morrison was “a lack of respect for women.”
“We want to send a voice and a message to everyone higher up that we’ve had enough.”
She agreed there should be an independent inquiry into Porter’s conduct.
“That poor woman has died now. They need to investigate [Christian Porter]. He needs to be stepped down,” she said. “Look at what’s happening in New York right now. They are asking him to step down because of sexual assault. We’re doing nothing.”
Stephanie, who wanted to share only her first name, said she had joined the march in Melbourne to “make some sort of change.”
“It feels like we are going to be doing this in 20 years’ time. Until there is some systemic change and women can come into parliament we are still going to be doing this.”
Summer, who also preferred to share only one name, said: “The Morrison government needs to get out. [We need to] get some representation from the women. That’s the only way it’s going to change.”
“The system is a boys’ club,” agreed Stephanie. “We want our rights to be heard. It’s not about hating men. It’s just about being equal.”
To the thousands of women who have stood up today and said “enough is enough” THANK YOU!!
Thank you for showing the leadership that is lacking from the boys club here in Parliament.
Thank you for the courage, the power and inspiration.
— 💚🌏 Sarah Hanson-Young (@sarahinthesen8) March 15, 2021
— Councillor Linda Scott (@ClrLindaScott) March 15, 2021
This morning @SenatorHume said the sexual assault of women in Australia had been “discussed…to death.”
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) March 15, 2021
The government has appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to lead a review into parliament’s working culture. She is expected to file a full report by November.
At the most recent election in 2019, women made up only 23 percent of the governing Liberal Party’s MPs and Senators even though they make up more than 50 percent of the Australian population.
Among the speakers at the Melbourne protest was former Liberal MP Julia Banks, who left politics in 2018 after raising concerns about the bullying and intimidation of women in what she called a “toxic culture.”
At the Melbourne protest, she told the crowd that when she was first asked to speak at the protest, she said no.
“I said no because I was frightened and I was scared,” she told the crowd. “I’ve seen what those in the centre of power will do if you speak up. They try to silence you. They create fear.”
Banks has previously said she was the victim of personal attacks and defamatory allegations by former colleagues in the Liberal Party.
Yet onstage at the protest, she told the crowd she decided to speak on behalf of “the thousands and thousands of women who can’t be here [and] or the thousands and thousands of women who can’t speak, who continue to be silenced and have been silenced for too long, for fear of losing their job, their health, their safety, their wellbeing or their life.”
Along with far smaller representation, female politicians have long faced discrimination in Australia’s parliament.
The country’s only female prime minister, Julia Gillard, famously made her “misogyny speech” against then-opposition leader Tony Abbot in 2012, calling out the toxic culture and sexism that directly affected her.
Along with what is viewed as the sexist and misogynist culture of the federal parliament, the protest also addressed the broader concerns of women’s safety.
Protesters were asked by organisers to wear black as a symbol of mourning, in memory of women who have been raped and murdered, or were victims of domestic violence.
On average, one woman is murdered per week by a current or former partner, while approximately 17 percent of women are reported to have experienced sexual assault, according to Our Watch, a group that aims to prevent violence against women and children.
Jamila Rizvi, an author and chief creative officer of Future Women, told the crowd in Melbourne that the current legal process was failing women.
In the case of Porter, the alleged victim took her own life last year, meaning the case cannot be taken forward by the police.
As such, Rizvi said “there is no clear forum” to investigate such allegations and “one must be created”.
Rizvi also said that too often women are not believed when reporting rape and sexual harassment and that this attitude was also present in parliament.
“Believe the women,” she told the crowd.
The protest ended with a minute’s silence for women who have been killed as a result of gender violence.