If this doesn’t read well, please bear with me. My eyes are lodged so far back in my skull right now that I’m struggling to see straight. Having spent Monday and Tuesday, aghast, at the chutzpah, hypocrisy and pretense on show at the Women’s Safety Summit, that the Prime Minister Scott Morrison convened in political haste back in April, my eyes are fixed backwards. I fear they will never roll forwards.
It is difficult to know where to start but seeing as though the Prime Minister gave himself the opening keynote slot to kick the summit off, let’s start there.
As Kristine Ziwica noted, Morrison just giving himself that gong rivalled Tony Abbott appointing himself as Minister for Women for sheer gall. And he didn’t stop there.
That the very same Prime Minister who has systematically dismissed, denied and belittled women for the past year could deliver a speech on respect and safety for women with a straight face will never not be gobsmacking. That Morrison did it days after rejecting a landmark opportunity to pass a set of meaningful legislative changes to make workplaces safer and more equitable for women, was insulting.
That he did so, with full faux sincerity, offering insights about his ‘ambitious spirit’, ‘the intolerable interactions too many women have with the justice system’ and some men ‘believing they own women’ felt like having giants rocks of salt crunched into a gaping open wound. By a doctor telling us it won’t hurt a bit.
The audacious lack of insight and understanding on show by the Prime Minister at what has been dubbed a ‘Stunt Summit’ was repugnant to behold. From failing to invite Brittany Higgins, excluding many victim-survivors who specifically sought to participate, to a secretive Anglo-dominant guest list that predictably excluded too many women of colour, to keeping even delegates in the dark about the process right up until the last minute, to refusing delegates many opportunities to speak, to its narrow agenda and heavy emphasis on an advertising campaign, this was undoubtedly the only kind of women’s safety summit Scott Morrison could host.
Notwithstanding excellent developments in the realm of online safety or the collective goodwill, hope and expertise of so many highly credible and credentialed participants and observers in the lead up to and duration of the summit, its efficacy was always going to be measured by the commitment to action.
Violence against women and children is not endemic because it’s an entirely intractable problem. As the CEO of Gender Equity Victoria, Tanja Kovak, points out ‘We know what works: we need funding.’ Many participants observed on Monday and Tuesday that the conversations were narrow and lacked the depth and nuance the incredible policy and subject matter expertise in Australia affords.
This may reflect the PM’s penchant for making everything flippant and glib. “It is not a new problem and it is not a simple problem. But Australia does have a problem,” he said on Monday. A powerful, sophisticated orator this PM is not.
And just when I felt like my eyes might return to their natural resting position, closer to my nose than the sky, I saw a tweet from the Minister for Women’s Safety, Anne Ruston, in which she quoted the Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw. He said that when victims of abuse are brave enough to speak up “we” need to be brave enough to act.
I’m intrigued. Who is the “we” the minister believes the Police Commissioner is referring to?
“We” the people of Australia? The thousands of women and men who marched around the country in March because we were “brave enough” to act in the face of the courage of Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins and Chanel Contos?
The people whom the Prime Minister was not “brave enough” to even cross the foyer of Parliament House to address? The people whom the Prime Minister was “brave enough” to tell should be grateful they weren’t shot?
Because the “we”, that I know Australia really really needs to be brave – and decent – enough to act when victims of abuse are brave enough to speak up are the people in power. I’m looking at you Anne Ruston, and Scott Morrison and every member of your government.
We need people in power to be “brave enough” not to send young women across the country to hide during an election after a young woman is brave enough to allege she was raped in a minister’s office.
We need people in power to be “brave enough” not to instigate an inquiry into who knew what when about an alleged rape in their place of work but brave enough to stand up, not at the suggestion of their wife but propelled by a sense of morality and humanity and decency, and express sorrow.
Brave enough to stand up and say this should never – ever – happen in any workplace. To say this will be dealt with and action taken to ensure it does not happen to any other person in Parliament House. To say this is not an issue to hide behind bureaucracy or any other ‘intolerable’ interaction. We needed a leader brave and decent enough to say this is more important than politics.
We needed people in power brave enough to respond to a landmark inquiry that was the culmination of hundreds of submissions and thousands of interviews with survivors of workplace sexual harassment, to act and respond by enacting and implementing all 55 recommendations.
That’s what WE need. And this government has shown us too many times it is not brave enough to act. It has shown us, repeatedly, how it will act in the face of victims of abuse brave enough to speak up and it’s not brave or decent. Not even close.
So no Minister Ruston I will not indulge you in a charade of telling Australians what they need to do when victims of abuse speak up, anymore than I’ll the indulge the Prime Minister in the idea he’s “desperately trying” to improve the safety of women in this country. The gap between words and deeds is a chasm no amount of marketing can close.
And if there was one single enduring point of consensus at the Safety Summit it was that the time for talking is done. It is time for action. Until your government is willing to take action, your words mean nothing.