On January 26, child sexual abuse survivor and advocate Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year.
In accepting her award, she spoke about the importance of survivors being given space to tell their stories on their terms and was frank: “Australia, we’ve come a long way but there’s still more work to do in a lot of areas.”
She’s not wrong.
20 days later, former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins bravely came forward with her allegations of being raped in March 2019 by a senior adviser in a ministerial office.
Four days after that, thousands of school girls published their alleged experiences of sexual assault at the hands of school boys online and signed a petition calling for better sex education in schools. The google doc that houses their devastating testimonials currently holds more than 1, 786 stories of alleged sexual abuse.
Then, the very next day, another woman came forward claiming she was sexually assaulted by the same man who allegedly attacked Higgins. Two days later, not one, but two more women also accused the same man of sexual assault, bringing the total up to four.
We’re not done yet.
31 days after Scott Morrison stood on stage and shook the hand of Grace Tame as she was named Australian of the Year, the ABC reported that the Prime Minister received an anonymous letter suggesting a young woman had been raped when she was 16 in 1988 by a man who is a current member of cabinet.
Tragically, that woman is now dead after taking her own life in 2020.
Our country, evidently, is sick. And a reckoning is taking place where Australian survivors are no longer submitting to the culture that has silenced them up until now.
This moment of reckoning should inspire hope. Instead, I feel nothing but disgust and exhaustion because of how some senior politicians are responding.
First, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told us he needed to consult his wife, Jenny, in order to feel empathy for Brittany Higgins, and when asked about the historical rape allegations, he referred to them as “rumour” and said it wasn’t a matter for him to deal with, that it was for the AFP.
Then, attorney general, Christian Porter, stood in front of Australia, naming himself as the minister who has been accused of rape, and what did he do? He made himself the victim.
He categorically denied that he had sexually assaulted the young woman in 1988. “Nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened,” the attorney general said.
Struggling to hold back tears, he said his mental health wasn’t doing so well. That the “trial by media” had a toll and he needed to take a few weeks leave.
He also mentioned former opposition leader Bill Shorten, and the process of investigation that took place when he faced sexual assault allegations. “A difference for the former opposition leader was that for him, while the police process was on foot, the entire Australian media left the issue to be dealt with by the authorities and did not start and attempt to conclude a public trial by media,” Porter said. What he failed to mention was the fact Shorten was subject of a 10 month police inquiry, voluntarily agreed to a police interview and no charges were laid. In comparison, Porter has not been subject to a formal investigation, because after initially speaking to the police, the woman felt unable to proceed with reporting the matter, citing medical and personal reasons.
If this wasn’t enough, the Australian reported last night that Linda Reynolds had referred to Brittany Higgins as a “lying cow” in front of her staff on the day Higgins came forward with her rape allegations. She didn’t deny the report, saying in a statement: “I have never questioned Ms Higgins’ account of her alleged sexual assault and have always sought to respect her agency in this matter. I did however comment on news reports regarding surrounding circumstances that I felt had been misrepresented.”
And yep, the Prime Minister has defended Reynolds. “I’m sure that all of you have found yourself, at a time of frustration, perhaps saying things you regret,” he said. “And I would simply ask you, given the comment was made in a private place, that you offer the same generosity to how you perceive something you might have said.”
It’s mind-boggling that this even needs to be said: it does not matter that Reynolds made her comment in “private”, the fact she said it at all is reason enough to doubt her moral integrity as a leader of our country.
A woman is dead. Countless others are dealing with irreparable trauma that would have been exacerbated over the past month by the media and politicians treating their experiences as material for public debate. How are they meant to feel watching the purported ‘leaders’ of our “great” country deflect, downplay and dismiss serious allegations of sexual assault?
All of the politicking these past weeks have proven nothing but that survivors and their trauma are not taken seriously. They are not taken seriously because if they were, we would have seen some decent compassion; they wouldn’t need to consult their wives about how to feel and they wouldn’t try to position themselves as the victim.
How are the women of Australia meant to feel confident in our leaders when they don’t seem to be able to meet this moment, and in fact, denigrate them in the face of it?
When Grace Tame accepted her award for Australian of the Year she finished by addressing the nation: “Hear me now. Using my voice, amongst a growing chorus of voices that will not be silenced. Let’s make some noise, Australia.”
36 days later, we’re still making noise, and we can’t stop now. I just wonder if the people who have the power to enact change are actually listening.