By Bridie Golding
In late January 2021, Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year for her advocacy for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Her appointment was a catalyst for the rise of other whistleblowers like Brittany Higgins and Chanel Contos, leading to a nationwide reckoning on misogyny and rape culture in Australia and launching high-profile protests and reviews.
Early this year, Chanel Contos posted on her Instagram story asking about her followers’ experiences of sexual assault. She is currently studying in London but grew up in the affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney, attending elite girls’ private schools and socialising with boys from neighbouring private, single-sex schools. The outpouring of national support and solidarity for her post has elevated her to being a leading campaigner for consent education reform, with over 44,000 signatures on her petition and over 6,000 testimonies of sexual assault, harassment and rape provided. Teach Us Consent (TUC), Contos’ movement, has now launched advertising campaigns and worked with the New South Wales police to shift sexual assault reporting options, resulting in a 61% month-on-month increase of reports. Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria have all announced that consent education will be made mandatory in all schools from varying ages, and TUC is giving input into the 5-yearly reform of the Australian national curriculum.
Brittany Higgins came forward in February, telling journalist Samantha Maiden that she was raped on a couch in a ministerial office inside Parliament House two years earlier, with no consequences for the senior male colleague she accused of raping her. He was sacked two weeks after the disclosure, on the basis of a security breach. This incident galvanized the women of Australia, with marches held around the country in protest against the misogynistic culture in Parliament and the country itself.
After several missteps—such as implying that he only realised the seriousness of Higgins’ experiences after a conversation with his wife—Prime Minister Scott Morrison established an inquiry by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in March, which received over 900 survey responses and over 400 interviews before its release in December. Findings of the Jenkins report were damning, with incidents including bullying due to power imbalances, expectations that “we [Parliamentary staffers] are meant to be providing a service at any cost ... irrespective of how the Members behave,” gender inequality, a lack of accountability, and sense of entitlement. The convoluted structure of the parliamentary environment leads to unclear standards of behaviour and boundaries between professional and personal lives, in a fly-in-fly-out environment like Canberra, where employees and members travel to the city for Parliament’s sitting weeks, spending the rest of the year in their hometown or electorate.
The review found a significant reluctance and fear of reporting incidents of bullying or sexual harassment, with only 11% of those who experienced sexual assault reporting it. It also heard “overwhelmingly” that even when complaints were made, there were rarely consequences for the perpetrator of bullying, sexual harassment or assault. One participant told the review that “Frequently, like at least every week, the advice was go and cry in the toilet so that nobody can see you, because that’s what it’s like up here.”
The review’s recommendations included: stronger institutional leadership; an external review; increased diversity in Parliament; an office of culture which would function as a HR department; and a review of, and amendments to, the Act that governs parliamentary employees. Jenkins also recommended a code of conduct, a parliamentary standards commission and several other new policies, which are a common feature of corporations. These recommendations were welcomed by the wider community, yet were overshadowed by political chaos in the chambers, as well as the Omicron variant emerging only days beforehand.
In an ideal world, these reforms would have been put into motion in the sitting days after their release. However, on the day the report was sent to the Attorney-General and made public, a Liberal Party senator made growling noises at independent Jacqui Lambie as she gave an impassioned speech in the chamber, demonstrating that Australia’s misogynistic culture may not be so easy to shake after all.