What about 'respect, protect, reflect? Our leaders' silence over parliament rape allegations is damning

What about ‘respect, protect, reflect? Our leaders’ silence over parliament rape allegations is damning

leaders

Late last week, fresh allegations of sexual assault crashed upon Parliament House, when a sitting Cabinet MP was accused of raping a woman in 1988 when she was just 16.

The Minister in question is yet to be publicly named, and the case is further complicated by the fact that the woman who made the allegations took her own life in June last year after making a report to New South Wales Police in the months prior. Police had suspended the investigation following her suicide.

But the case resurfaced when a 31-page dossier outlining the woman’s account was sent by express post to the offices of Greens’ Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Senator Penny Wong on Wednesday, as well as Liberal MP Celia Hammond.

Senator Wong reported that the letter was not the first she had heard of the situation.

“I first became aware of the complainant’s allegation when I ran into her in Adelaide in November 2019. The complainant reminded me we had met once before,” she said in a statement.

“I facilitated her referral to rape support services and confirmed she was being supported in reporting the matter to NSW Police.”

The dossier was also received by the Prime Minister’s office and AFP commissioner, Reece Kershaw.

And things took another sharp turn when similar allegations surfaced against a sitting Labor MP over the weekend.

Liberal senator Sarah Henderson and Greens’ Senator Sarah Hanson-Young both confirmed they had received an email from a woman alleging she was sexually assaulted by a man who now sits as a federal Labor MP.

“In immediately referring this matter to the AFP, I have followed the procedures set out by Commissioner Kershaw in his letter of 24 February, 2021,” a statement from Senator Henderson outlined.

Again, the man in question is yet to be named.

So what has the response been so far?

The Prime Minister spent the entire weekend MIA, likely hoping he’d wake up to find things magically resolved. He’s still yet to open his mouth about the matter.

But what message does this send to Australians? To women? And to the world?

Only days after the Prime Minister vowed to address parliament’s dark and ugly culture toward women, cracked open by Brittany Higgins’ brave testimony, his words were thrown into disrepute by his noticeable silence.

Michael Bradley, the lawyer heading the deceased woman’s case, urged Morrison to sideline his minister while authorities investigate, saying the man’s integrity was now in question.

“It’s untenable for him not to, I would think,” said Bradley. “It’s not really a legal question, it’s a question of propriety.

“It goes to his ability to do his job. It’s necessary that his integrity is not under serious question.

“And it’s about the integrity of the entire government – whether it can carry on with a cloud this huge hanging over it.”

But instead, Morrison has let the situation escalate and speculation spiral; tainting the names and reputations of all sitting Cabinet ministers while the alleged is yet to be stood aside.

For women in this country who desperately need some reassurance, they’ve instead received a big dose of cowardly inertia. Had the PM acted swiftly, his words delivered last week at an International Women’s Day event would not now appear so hollow.

And what about the global optics? To the outside world, Australia looks like a place that freely enables this kind of conduct. A country and parliament where women are not only underrepresented and served but also endangered. Regularly.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s response to everything has been equally disappointing.

Over the weekend he said Scott Morrison faced a “test” over whether to hold an investigation or ask the minister to step aside.

“It’s his responsibility – he solely appoints the cabinet. He must assure himself that it’s appropriate that the current make-up of the cabinet can continue,” he said.

He failed to proffer an opinion on whether the cabinet minister should step aside, resign or be removed.

And he did not call for an independent investigation into the case– as pushed by the Greens– suggesting that police were best-placed to look into the allegation.

As for allegations made against one of his own ministers? Albanese, like Morrison, is yet to speak up.

Instead, a spokesperson for the Labor Party told Fairfax that “The Australian Labor Party has seen media reports that Senator Henderson has received an allegation of sexual assault and has referred any relevant correspondence to authorities as is appropriate.”

However a statement like this, is just a box-ticking mode of communication. It delivers no personal empathy, humanity or leadership. It takes no hard line.

And it proves why this government– all sides concerned– needs a radical overhaul. Women continue to be collateral damage of a rampant boys’ club where unaccountability reigns supreme. For this to change we need true acknowledgement of the crisis at hand as well as an unwavering willingness to implement measures that will tackle it.

Sure, it could get uncomfortable, but isn’t that what leadership is all about?

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