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Is This Truly A “Turning Point” For Sexual Harassment And Assault In Australia?

Allegations of sexism and sexual assault have rocked the Australian government, but where we go next is unclear

The last few weeks of the news cycle have been quite brutal for empathetic people generally predisposed to justice and wanting others to feel safe. Allegations of widespread misogyny, sexism and sexual assaults have been levelled at both the Liberal and Labour parties of the Australian government. Tens of thousands of people joined the Women’s March4Justice earlier this week. Yesterday, Tanya Plibersek delivered a petition calling on Scott Morrison to stop violence against women to Parliament. More than 135,000 Australians signed.

There’s a complicated web of local and international events surrounding how we got here, some of the most circulated being Brittany Higgin’s rape allegation and her subsequent inappropriate treatment, the historical rape allegation against Christian Porter, and the killing of British woman Sarah Everard

In recent days, reports have emerged that women of Australia’s labour party have shared detailed stories of their experiences of aggressive behaviour, derogatory comments and widespread sexism in a private Facebook group for current and former Labour staffers. A number of the comments can be viewed here, though they may be distressing for some readers.

Labor leaders are now urging their colleagues to come forward—names of the men who enacted this behaviour were not included in the original Facebook posts.

“Harassment, and sexist behaviour, and indeed patriarchy doesn’t exist just on one side of politics, it exists throughout society,” said Labour leader Anthony Albanese. “What we need to do is to make sure that we listen to the concerns that are put forward and respond.”

Plibersek, the shadow minister for women has seconded that call, stating that the Labour party is committed to ensuring the safety of those who had suffered inappropriate behaviour towards them. At this stage, the inquiry is being headed up by Kate Jenkins, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner.

Per The Guardian, Jenkins believes Australia is “at a turning point” with regard to the conversation around sexual harassment and assault. “In my time working in this area and particularly looking in workplaces over the 30 years, I’ve never seen any moment like this,” Jenkins said.

On the one hand, the inquiry could provide a more collaborative, supportive and victim-focused arena to air the experiences many of the women in Australian politics have experienced. On the other, our hearts are heavy and scepticism continues to bleed into hope. Set aside for the moment that the Australian government is a deeply flawed, ineffective institution that was born from a colonialist, patriarchal society—well, a society that was more overt with those themes that the current covert modus operandi.

When the level of rhetoric from the leader of this country is that people should be grateful that they can demonstrate for recognition of their basic humanity without being shot at, where do we go? What changes can we hope for when people are quicker to throw down the words “presumption of innocence” and “innocent until proven guilty” than entertain the idea that there are very real, very traumatic reasons that people who have been victims of sexual assault and rape often don’t come forward and that part of that is the adversarial legal system itself?

For what it’s worth, the lawyer for Porter’s now deceased accuser is calling for an independent inquiry into the Attorney General. “Rule of law simply ensures or guarantees equality under the law – equal access and equal protection,” Michael Bradley of Marque Lawyers told The Sun-Herald. “In relation to sexual violence, it’s not delivering that at all. The legal system has failed completely so it requires pretty deep reform.”

“If there is no justice, then the law has failed,” Bradley said in his speech at the March 4 Justice earlier this week.

Plibersek hopes that through the Jenkins inquiry an independent investigatory function could be established for parliamentary staff. “We’ve got an independent remuneration tribunal, an independent travel and expenses organisation, it would make sense to me to have a truly independent standalone function for investigating allegations of sexual harassment, dealing with perpetrators of sexual harassment and supporting victims in the workplace.”

For his part, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been accused of wheeling out Liberal figures—mainly women—to discredit the criticism being levelled at his party’s handling of the sexual assault and harassment allegations.

“We must watch out for each other and we must support each other,” he said. Sadly, we don’t think he meant this in the way you’d hope.

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