In Depth

Rape and misogyny claims trigger moment of reckoning for Australian politics

String of lawmakers hit by allegations amid renewed surge of #MeToo anger

In 2019, a speech made seven years earlier by then prime minister Julia Gillard denouncing misogyny in Australia’s political world was voted the country’s most iconic television moment ever.

Now, almost a decade after Gillard’s famous intervention, this institutionalised sexism is back in the spotlight after a former female politician told The New York Times (NYT) that the Australian parliament was “the most unsafe workplace in the country”.

Amid a growing list of misconduct and even rape allegations, PM Scott Morrison has enlisted Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner to investigate the country’s political culture.

#MeToo moment

As the NYT notes, “Australia’s #MeToo moment has arrived, late but strong, like a tsunami directed at the country’s political foundation”. 

A tidal wave of testimony has poured in since a former political adviser claimed in an interview with TV channel Network 10 in February that she was raped by a senior colleague in Australia’s Parliament House.

The allegations by Brittany Higgins, an ex-aide to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, prompted “shock and outrage”, as the BBC reported at the time. Higgins said she had feared losing her job after the alleged incident, in 2019, and had received little support from her bosses.

The row then took a fresh twist when Reynolds allegedly called Higgins a “lying cow” over the assault claim - a remark that the cabinet minister has not denied. Reynolds last month agreed to pay legal costs and make a donation to a sexual assault charity as part of a confidential settlement with her former staffer. 

Meanwhile, the government was hit with a fresh scandal, after Attorney General Christian Porter publicly identified himself as the minister at the centre of a historical rape allegation, which he has denied. Porter’s accuser had reported the incident - which allegedly took place in 1988, when they were both teenagers - to the police in early 2020, but committed suicide before the investigation was concluded. 

The allegations against both Reynolds and Porter have “sparked widespread protests and demands for an end to violence against women”, the Financial Times (FT) reports. 

The public anger has been fuelled by the leak of videos and photos showing male staff members from the ruling Liberal Party masturbating on female colleagues’ desk - acts that plumbed “new depths of depravity” and triggered “renewed calls to stamp out a misogynist culture” in parliament and “wider Australian society”, the paper adds.

The airing of the pixelated images by news channels last month also closely coincided with another MP stepping aside from his duties after facing an unrelated accusation of slander by two women.

The growing list of allegations have strengthened perceptions of the political landscape as “a realm that more and more women describe as Australia’s most sexist backwater, where many men have long assumed they can act like kings”, says the NYT.

Gender reckoning

“In my time working in this area and particularly looking in workplaces over the [past] 30 years, I've never seen any moment like this,” inquiry chief Kate Jenkins, sex discrimination commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, told ABC News in early March.

As the NYT notes, the rape allegation by former adviser Higgins has opened the floodgates to a maelstrom of stories from “women of every party” who claim “that for years they have been demeaned while trying to do their jobs”.

Women have described a “toxic” macho culture in which they “have been groped and insulted, ignored and interrupted - and whenever they have questioned such behaviour, they have faced a barrage of attacks”, the paper adds.

Morrison has been under increasing pressure to tackle the growing scandal, amid allegations by opposition parties that his government tried to cover up Higgins’ claim. The PM last month made “tearful appeal for a change in public attitudes to women”, yet “failed to propose practical measures that would address the fundamental concerns” of campaigners, the FT reported at the time.

Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Australia political editor Katharine Murphy told the Full Story podcast that it is “very dangerous for a prime minister to cast himself as a sort of passive onlooker in very serious instances like this”. 

“The message that sends to the women of Australia is: ‘I’m not listening - I'm not taking this seriously’”, Murphy added.

Former Liberal Party deputy leader Julie Bishop had told ABC News weeks earlier that “there’s a powerful culture within all political parties to ensure that no individual does anything that would damage the party's prospects”.

A group of male Liberal MPs who named themselves the “big swinging dicks” had attempted to derail her career, claimed Bishop, who described a culture in which “those who are prone to inappropriate or unprofessional - or even illegal - behaviour get a sense of protection.”

That safe haven finally appears to be under threat, however, as the more recent allegations push the issue to the top of the national agenda. 

“There’s so much stored-up anger and hurt,” Tanya Plibersek, the opposition Labor Party’s minister for women, told the NYT. “Once people start telling their stories, it’s hard to stop.”

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