For Prime Minister Scott Morrison, that was the end of the matter.
The alleged victim didn’t file a police statement before she died, age 49, last year. After police closed the case last week, citing a lack of “admissible evidence,” Morrison refused to order an independent inquiry into the allegations, which emerged after statements by the alleged victim were anonymously sent to the Prime Minister’s office and two female politicians from other parties.
For many Australians, however, the case is not closed. Far from it.
Across the country, thousands of women are planning protests for March 15, when they will present a petition to Parliament House calling for the government to investigate all allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by Members of Parliament and their staff.
Yet their demands go far deeper than parliament. They want structural and cultural change to achieve equity across the country, in schools, workplaces and the justice system.
“We don’t want another report, (or) someone saying, ‘Oh, we’ll look into the matter.’ This has to change, right here, right now,” said Janine Hendry, a reluctant protest organizer behind the March 15 rallies.
“I didn’t think at 58 years old, I would be an activist,” Hendry added. “Nor did I think at 58 years old I would be taking to the streets to protest against this stuff. I thought we’d moved beyond it — but we haven’t.”
Hendry inadvertently tapped into a well of anger when she typed a quick tweet last Sunday, venting her frustration that women in Australia are still fighting for equality in 2021.
It’s not just Hendry. In London, another Australian woman, half Hendry’s age, is trawling through thousands of emails detailing alleged sexual assaults on schoolgirls in Australia. Chanel Contos’ movement started with a few friends sharing stories of sexual assault. It’s since morphed into a website and petition calling for education and change.
The two groups represent different demographics of Australian women — and both are angry.
“Jenny and I spoke last night,” Morrison said, referring to his wife. “And she said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’
“Jenny has a way of clarifying things.”
It led one female reporter to ask: “What would happen if men don’t have a wife and children? Would they reach the same compassionate conclusion?”
Critics seized on Morrison’s choice of words as evidence he didn’t comprehend the issue.
Discussion over who said what and when soon shifted to reports of another bombshell allegation — that a cabinet minister was accused of raping a teenage girl more than 30 years ago. The woman wasn’t alive to tell her story, but her friends sent documents, including old excepts of the woman’s diary, to the Prime Minister and senators from rival parties. A cover letter urged them to act, according to one senator who received it.
Morrison waited three days to respond amid public speculation on whether he should sack or suspend the minister, perhaps during an independent investigation. He didn’t do either, and accepted Porter’s denial.
The reaction was swift. “I can say quite genuinely that I have never felt the outpouring of white-hot rage from as many women, but also actually quite a few men, as I have in the last 24 hours,” said Georgie Dent, executive director of The Parenthood, a non-profit group for parents, on Tuesday. “The idea that they can carry on with business as usual is completely untenable.”
It starts in school
Under Australian law, accusers have to prove their claim is true — unlike the US, where alleged offenders must prove the claim is false. Consequently, many women stayed silent, while other people who shared their stories anonymously ended up being named.
But recent events in parliament have set off an alarm that is ringing across the country.
“This is the start … this is Australia’s #MeToo moment,” said Jacqui True, professor of international relations and the director of Monash University’s Centre for Gender, Peace and Security.
Until recently, former Sydney high school student Contos hadn’t heard of Higgins or the other allegations at the top of Australian politics. She moved to London last September to start a master’s degree in gender, education and international development, but in the last three weeks she has been inundated with other stories of sexual assault from former students.
Contos said they were only taught about consent in their final years of school — and by then, for many, it was too late.
Names have been removed from the stories, so as not to defame anyone, but each entry is tagged with the author’s school. Overwhelmingly, the students say they didn’t give consent, and many times their alleged attackers didn’t seem to know what that meant anyway.
“They think it’s okay to convince a girl to perform oral sex; they think it’s okay to push her head down slightly,” said Contos. “They think it’s okay to guilt-trip them and say, ‘Why did you come upstairs with me if you don’t want to do this.’ They think it’s okay to get a girl really drunk on purpose and have sex with them. They think it’s okay to walk in on their friends doing sexual things and laugh and take photos.
“It’s not okay, but they think it’s okay because it’s what everyone does, and it’s what seems normal.”
Contos doesn’t know Hendry, the March 15 protest organizer. But Hendry has heard about Contos’ campaign.
“The stuff that Chanel is uncovering is testament to the fact that (misogyny) is alive and well and we need to knock it on its head,” Hendry said.
Contos met with the head teachers of nine schools last week to teach them how to talk to their students. On Friday, the New South Wales Police announced it was working with school administrators to address the issue of sexual violence in schools across the state.
Australia is considered a wealthy country. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, its economy had been expanding for nearly 30 years, driven largely by the export of resources to China.
“What it means is that the returns to women’s education and educational achievements are actually lost, because they’re not translated into key positions and impact in the political and economic sphere,” said True, the director of Monash University’s Centre for Gender, Peace and Security.
True puts that down to structural issues, including the lack of affordable paid childcare to allow women to return to work. “The workforce is based on that male as the breadwinner norm in Australia,” she said.
“The culture of politics is highly masculinized and it is not conducive to gender equality, or to women’s participation; it’s a very tough woman who can make it in Australian politics,” said True.
“The perspective on what it means to be a woman in Australian society is lost … which means that we compound the problems, we continue not to address the gender inequality, because we simply do not have those who can voice and shape the policies in our government.”
Work to do
“This is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it one that is particular to Australia or to Parliament,” Ryan said, from the University of Exeter in the UK, where she’s working as a professor of social and organizational psychology.
“What these incidents do, however, is bring home the importance of the need for research, and evidence-based policy and practice, to address the sexual harassment in the workplace, and the other inequalities that women face in their careers.”
For others, they also bring the need for direct action. On March 15, women around the country are urged to wear black and join marches in their cities, if they can’t travel to Canberra.
The Prime Minister says Porter should be afforded the presumption of innocence, along with everybody else, and that calling an independent inquiry would undermine the rule of law in Australia. “We are governed by that rule, not the rule of the mob or anybody else,” Morrison said. However he added that he would support an inquest if one was ordered by the South Australian coroner.
“If the calculation has been made that this is an issue that won’t concern voters, I think they’re mistaken,” said Dent, from The Parenthood.
True, from the Centre for Gender, Peace and Security, said now is the time for the government to listen.
“The current cabinet do not understand, not only the degree of anger, but the degree of violence from men,” she said. “And I think maybe this is a time where people actually need to learn a little bit more.
“They need to listen to survivors, they need to understand those stories.”