Yesterday, the Melbourne City Council published a summary of a 100 page independent investigation overseen by QC Ian Freckelton into allegations of sexual harassment against former Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. The report found Doyle had seriously sexually harassed two fellow councillors, Tessa Sullivan and Cathy Oke, and that the council was an unsafe workplace for them.
When the allegations against Doyle first came to light in December of last year, they were the first against an Australian politician of the #MeToo era. Even then, they came months after numerous accusations of sexual misconduct had claimed multiple political scalps in both Westminster and Washington. In both places, the debate had moved on to the reforms necessary to prevent harassment from happening in the first place. But here in Australia, relative crickets.
When I wrote about sexual harassment in Australian politics late last year, I expressed my frustration at the slow arrival of the “reckoning” on Australian shores, particularly in politics. Nothing to see to see here, I asked? Unlikely. But I recognised the barriers women would face in speaking out. I wrote, “The problem with #MeToo is it’s very difficult to be #MeFirst.
When I first started asking about the potential scale of sexual harassment in Australian politics, I spoke on background to numerous women who had worked or currently work in political roles or in the press gallery. They all told me that the fear of public smearing and retribution was an inhibiting factor.
The nature of Australia’s defamation laws were also cited as making it particularly difficult for reporters to follow up on allegations, and some – but not all – in the press gallery, I believe, had an unfortunate tendency to put sexual harassment in the “private lives” basket, adhering to the long-standing convention that such matters are out of bounds.
Enter Tessa Sullivan, Australian politics’ #MeFirst, followed months later by Catherine Marriot, who filed a confidential complaint about then leader of the National Party Barnaby Joyce.
But what happened when both Sullivan and Marriot spoke out? In both cases, the fears expressed by so many women I spoke to before Christmas were wholly realised.
Sullivan saw photos of herself in a bikini splashed across the Herald Sun, along with a series of quotes from her text messages, taken entirely out of context – and, as many have speculated, entirely designed to discredit her.
In his response to the report, the Council’s Chief Executive, Ben Rimmer, acknowledged the challenges of being the first to speak out and weathering the repercussions. He said, Sullivan took a “very significant and courageous personal step” in being the first to speak out.
Marriot saw news of her confidential complaint leaked to the media. It has since been speculated that this might have been a ploy to force Joyce’s hand to resign. And then her identity was leaked to the Australian media by another individual or group with a different agenda. I have my theories. In both cases, Marriot was simply a pawn in a larger political game for individuals seemingly disinterested in dealing with the real issue to hand.
Why would any other women come forward to help further the reach of #MeToo in transforming Australia’s political culture after witnessing these textbook displays of closing ranks and smearing the women involved? Somewhat embarrassingly, this tendency made international news this week, with a piece in the New York Times noting these women’s extremely unfortunate experiences and asking precisely that question.
Well, I hope despite it all that women will. And I say this because to my mind there is something different this time around and these women are forcing change. In another time, the closing of the ranks, the smears might have diverted our attention, leaving these women alone and silenced (maybe it’s time to go back and look at the experiences of Dimity Paul and Stefanie Jones). Not now.
Tessa Sullivan came out swinging earlier this week with a tweetfest and series of interviews, partly aimed at forcing the release of the investigation and partly aimed at shaming the Herald Sun into removing the offending content. Many publicly came to her aid, including her fellow councillors. By Tuesday the Herald sun removed the articles and the report was released later that day.
(In a statement via his wife Emma Page-Campbell, Doyle continued to deny the allegations against him, saying he was sorry for any “misunderstanding” his “cheerful” and “sometimes animated” personality and manner towards people had caused, and he recognised this “may no longer be appropriate by today’s standards”. I’ll just say that he might have learned something from the inefficacy of Harvey Weinstein’s “but I’m a dinosaur” defence and leave it there.)
In the days and weeks after Marriot’s complaint and her identity were leaked, many high profile individuals publicly came to her aid, including the President of the National Farmers’ Federation Fiona Simson.
Yes, I am horrified that the fears of these women were realised, and I recognise how difficult this has been for both of them. I wish things had been different. But I am heartened that their story didn’t end there, as it may well have done in another time.
Both fought back, but more importantly, a true indication of where we find ourselves in the #MeToo era, other powerful individuals backed them up. It’s just not on now. Change is being forced.
I hope this is the moral from the whole sorry saga that other women contemplating coming forward will take away. And I hope this is the lesson, shall we call them “supporters”, of alleged perpetrators take away.
In her interview with the Guardian earlier this week, Sullivan said she was not interested in “being a #MeToo warrior” and that “all she wants is the truth”.
Reluctant “warrior” she may be. But one thing is certain: Sullivan and Marriot are #MeFirst. And for that, both women have my respect and undying gratitude.