Former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins' decision to go public about being sexually assaulted in Parliament House two years ago has given other young women the confidence to do the same.
The amount of buck-passing by senior ministers and staff that has ensued could be described as a protection racket.
It is a reminder of just how widespread this workplace crime is and, yet, how insignificant those in power perceive this crime to be.
Higgins said she was assaulted in the office of then-Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds in March 2019. Since February 15, three other women have come forward with complaints — two about sexual assault and a complaint of sexual harassment against the same perpetrator.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation is the alleged sexual assault of a minor in 1988 by a current senior cabinet minister, which the Australia Federal Police (AFP) is now investigating.
An anonymous letter was sent to the Prime Minister as well as Labor and Greens Senators by contacts of the complainant, who has since taken her own life. Labor and the Greens sent the letter on to the AFP.
These latest complaints come after a Four Corners report last November included reports of then-MP, now Attorney-General, Christian Porter’s sexist and harassing behaviour towards a staffer in 2017, who had broken from an affair with him.
A former Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller was interviewed about an affair she had with MP Alan Tudge. She spoke about the “significant power imbalance” in relationships between ministers and staffers, even where it was consensual.
Miller said her experience of working in the corporate sector is that such behaviour was “not tolerated on any level”.
It is now being revealed that senior ministers did know about Higgins’ case, if not the details. At the very least, they were aware of a culture of inappropriate behaviour, even sexual harassment, and they chose not to do anything about it.
It has taken an allegation of rape, with a face and a name, to send the government into damage control over the misogynist culture in Parliament House.
While Higgins and the other women have done the right thing, it will take more than simply forcing their attackers to face justice. This is because misogyny is not limited to Parliament House: it exists in all workplaces — even the High Court as the inquiry into Justice Dyson Heydon found — and is the result of institutionalised sexism.
Action can, and is, being taken. Tasmanian Women Lawyers (TWL), which is pushing for transparent and accountable processes to investigate allegations into judicial misconduct or impropriety, said parliament and the justice system must set up a clear, open and procedurally fair process for all complaints regarding judicial behaviour.
“This would provide opportunity to restore public faith in the justice system by showing the willingness of the Judiciary to be held to the same standards and process for accountability as public servants,” it said. The Tasmanian Supreme Court is investigating an allegation of inappropriate behaviour against a Supreme Court judge.
TWL said such alleged misconduct “raises issues around power imbalances in personal relationships, and the potential of workplace sexual harassment” which also have the potential to undermine confidence in the justice system.
The Australian Health Practitioner Regulatory Agency released a national survey in February last year that found that close to 10,000 trainee doctors had said pervasive bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment in hospitals was putting patients at risk.
Spearheaded by women, unions have been campaigning for decades to stop gendered violence in the workplace.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council’s (VTHC) 2017 Gendered Violence at Work report, found that 60% of respondents felt “unsafe, uncomfortable or at risk” in their workplace, while 64% said they have experienced bullying, harassment or violence in their workplace. These percentages are high.
The report identified four problem areas in workplaces: men dominating positions of power in workplaces; women’s work remaining segregated in lower-paying and less respected fields; a culture of sexism and norms that allow harassment and violence to continue; and violence and aggressive behaviour being supported, accepted and rewarded.
The experiences women workers shared show that gendered violence in the workplace is not limited to any particular industry — blue or white collar, low or high paid.
Instead, it said sexism, harassment and gendered violence are prevalent in all industries because they are prevalent in society.
“Gendered violence is pervasive in Australian society and is a serious everyday health and safety issue for many Victorian workers,” the report noted, adding, “It is a workplace hazard with specific causes”.
It said that there is a link between gender inequality and women’s experiences of violence at work.
“Too often the violence perpetrated against women because they are women is overlooked and under investigated. Women report they have no confidence that their employers, or the workplace health and safety regulator (WorkSafe), take this matter seriously or are prepared to take action to prevent or stop the violence we are experiencing. This must change.”
The reasons why women don’t speak up are the same reasons Higgins did not, at first, speak up: fear of not being believed; fear of losing their job and consequent economic stress; and a fear of tanking their career.
The VTHC report described gendered violence as being “like a disease in our workplaces”. If we know that the causes are multiple, we must have multiple strategies to prevent it from happening.
One of the many inquiries set up by the federal government is into “workplace culture”. But we already know it is toxic.
Until women have the same social and economic power as men, sexism will continue — inside and outside of work — because structural misogyny accepts and trivialises the gendered violence women experience on a daily basis.
The task is bigger than simply changing workplace culture, but that doesn’t mean we should feel defeated. Workplace law, in which sexual harassment is stipulated as a crime, has come a long way since the 1970s, thanks to women’s movement and union campaigns.
We need to continue to do all we can to ensure the laws are enforced and, at the same time, continue to push for change in women’s social and economic status in society.
Higgins was able to speak out about the violent crime committed at her workplace, but so many women cannot. That means unions and other community organisations need to.
It also means we cannot accept the hypocrisy from those in parliament, or the courts, who talk about equality, and even speak at International Women’s Day events, while actively undermining women’s rights by continuing the workplace protection racket.
We can all imagine a world where any woman and girl can walk down any street, day or night, speak, blog, tweet, sing, dance, play, work, organise, socialise and go about her daily life without fear of harassment, abuse, ridicule, insult or assault.
To get to that world, however, means we have to get organised to fight for it.
[Sarah Hathway is a union organiser and a co-convener of Socialist Alliance.]