Didn’t know or didn’t want to know? The 'who knew what when' debate we should be having

Didn’t know or didn’t want to know? The ‘who knew what when’ debate we should be having

The single overarching response I’ve had to the whole “who knew what when” debate that’s followed Brittany Higgins’ devastating rape allegations, is this: while Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his team can play whack a mole regarding who knew what when about this specific case, they certainly can’t claim they didn’t know that Australia’s Parliament and political workplaces have a problem.

Watching them try to make that stick has been one of the most infuriating aspects of this past week. And when I’ve turned my attention to cataloguing the myriad missed opportunities to acknowledge and address the issues, I’ve ended up even more furious than before I started the whole exercise… and that’s really saying something.

In my view, that’s the broader “who knew what when” debate we should be having.

Let me walk you through a few examples because they’re indicative of the mountain we – and survivors of sexual harassment and assault in political workplaces —  still have to climb.

When #MeToo first arrived on Australian shores in 2017, I wrote a piece for Women’s Agenda in which I highlighted that — given the movement had claimed a number of high-profile political scalps aboard, including in the UK and US — it stretched credulity to suggest Australian politics didn’t have a problem.

I then, politely, suggested that the Department of Finance, which oversees political staffers’ employment via the Members of Parliament (MOPS) Act, “get ahead of a potential scandal” and spare women the risk and further trauma associated with “going public” by revising their sexual harassment policy.

My detailed examination of the policy suggested it was “incomprehensible”, as Alex Grayson, an employment law expert at Maurice Blackburn described it. Essentially, it wasn’t a sexual harassment policy at all, but a bullying policy — and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Suffice to say, my criticisms of the policy were not warmly received. At the time, I wrote the following about the department’s short and dismissive response: “the penny hasn’t dropped that a reckoning is coming”.

It took Opposition front-bencher Tanya Plibersek seizing on that report and publicly calling on the Department of Finance to address the issues for it to announce a review. And even then, as Alex Grayson observes today, the result of that review was underwhelming.

A year later in 2018, the floodgates opened and women started to come forward.

Reporter Eryk Bagshaw of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald reported the experiences of two women in the Liberal Party, Chelsey Potter and Dhanya Mani, who alleged they were sexually assaulted while working for senior Liberal politicians. Both made complaints that they said were dismissed or ignored.

The official response from Morrison’s office to that report was that they “should go to the police”.

Read: nothing to do with me.

Earlier this week, both Potter and Mani further detailed the full extent of the indifferent response they say they received from those with the power to do something.

In an essay for In Daily, Potter wrote that Senator Simon Birmingham — now the Minister for Finance tasked with coordinating the fourth, “independent” review announced following Higgins’ allegations — told her “he wasn’t in a position to speak”. Potter added: “Since then, I’ve yet to receive a call…there was never a check in. No offer of support, either professionally or personally.”  

In a powerful interview with 7:30, Mani said she contacted the Prime Minister’s office following Bagshaw’s report to discuss ways to change the culture, but she was simply told that she could “write a letter to the Prime Minister like any other member of the public”.

More recently at the end of last year, ABC journalist Louise Milligan attempted to highlight the issues in a story for ABC’s Four Corners, Inside the Canberra Bubble. For her trouble, Milligan and the ABC were subjected to a sustained campaign on the part of the Government to ditch the story on the basis that it was not “in the public interest”.

Following the programme’s broadcast, Morrison described the questionable behaviour of two of his Ministers, Alan Tudge and Christian Porter, that was detailed in the programme as “human frailty” he was certain the Australian public would “understand”.

Again, nothing to do with me.

All these missed opportunities have culminated in Morrison’s most recent warning last week that “if there is any suggestion this issue is confined to one party in this place, that is a false suggestion”. He added that this was also an issue in all workplaces.

Well, duh.

We’ve all known that sexual harassment and abuse is an issue in all workplaces for quite some time. Certainly that’s been abundantly clear since Kate Jenkins published the results of her ground-breaking, two year-long inquiry into sexual harassment roughly a year ago – an inquiry that was commissioned in the days after #MeToo first went viral.

And, as my colleague Georgie Dent asked on Twitter earlier this week, if the Prime Minister accepts that workplace sexual harassment and even assault is prevalent in all Australian workplaces, why has he not actioned a single one of the Jenkins inquiry’s 55 recommendations?

Are we really going to buy that he didn’t know? Or is it more likely that he didn’t want to know?

After all these women have bravely come forward, after so many journalists have done the risky work of putting these stories on the public record, and after Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner spent two years investigating the full extent and nature of sexual harassment and abuse in Australian workplaces, please don’t insult them – and discount their efforts — with such a flimsy excuse.

With respect Prime Minister, if you don’t show some leadership now and chart a course to change, you’re a big part of the problem.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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