Over the years, as story after story of abuse in political workplaces registered on our collective radar, I have asked myself: what’s it going to take for the Prime Minister to actually do something. Like, really do something, aside from offer his standard line that women should “go to the police” or make some cosmetic changes to the government’s woefully inadequate sexual harassment policy for political staffers.
The answer to that question came yesterday. And, sadly, it wasn’t the fact that Brittany Higgins was allegedly raped on the sofa of a Minister’s office in Parliament House.
Just let me emphasise that point again… raped on the sofa of a Minister’s office.
According to Scott Morrison, it was the fact that his wife Jenny had a quiet word, urging him to approach the issue “as a father”.
Cue a well-deserved collective eye roll from the many women and men of Australia who, like me, had hoped that the one good thing Ivanka Trump achieved during her time as her father’s political advisor was to expose the supposed effectiveness of “daughter water” for the lie that it is.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t need a daughter to recognise a woman’s humanity. And it goes without saying that we would all appreciate it if our Prime Minister would show some leadership because he is, well, our nation’s leader — and the leader of his political party — not because he is Australia’s “Daggy Dad in Chief”.
But I digress. That point has been well and truly made now.
My point is that it’s well past time to get down to brass tacks about the change that we really need. And a good place to start is by interrogating these words, also spoken by Scott Morrison at the same press conference yesterday where he addressed Higgin’s allegations: “it shatters me that still, in this day and age, a young woman can find herself in the vulnerable situation that she was in. Not her doing.”
A “young woman” who “finds herself” in a “vulnerable situation”. In other words, a “deserving victim” worthy of our paternalistic “protection”? Is that what the Prime Minister meant by those comments? And a young women doesn’t just “find herself” in this kind of situation. A perpetrators put her there, and individuals and institutions allowed him to get away with it.
Here’s what’s wrong with the Prime Minister’s observation. New research out last month from the University of Washington shows that women who are young, “conventionally attractive” and appear and act feminine are more likely to be believed when making accusations of sexual harassment. And that leaves people who don’t fit that prototype facing greater hurdles when trying to convince a workplace or court that they have been harassed.
So, back to the original question I posed at that start of this column. What’s it going to take for our Prime Minister to do something and recognise every woman’s right to a safe workplace — not only “someone’s daughter” or a “young” (insert “deserving”) victim? And how do we get from here to there?
The answer will likely not come in the form of the independent review into the complaints process and “cultural problems in the treatment of women” announced by the Prime Minister yesterday.
Why so cynical, you ask? How “independent” will the review really be, and will the Prime Minister commit to implementing its recommendations?
I’ll just point out that this same Government commissioned Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to undertake a year-long inquiry into sexual harassment four years ago — at the height of outrage following a tsunami of #MeToo allegations — and it has yet to respond to or implement any of that review’s 55 recommendations.
What it may well take is the fortitude of the many brave women who’ve raised these issues for years: women like Brittany Higgins yes, but also Catherine Marriot, Chelsey Potter, Dhanya Mani, Rachelle Miller, Tessa Sullivan to name a few. They’ve shown that they are determined to ask the difficult, inconvenient questions again and again …. until they get an acceptable answer.
They have paid a high price for speaking out, and it’s a shame it has come to this.
But it’s these women who are speaking truth to power, not Jenny and her paternalistic comments about fathers and daughters. And they are the ones “clarifying” the issues and providing a road map to change.
Please, credit where credit’s due.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica