Culture

LATEST: Australia’s cultural reckoning

This time, we will not stay silent.

By Olivana Smith-Lathouris

Culture

This time, we will not stay silent.

By Olivana Smith-Lathouris

For women around Australia, the last three months have seen a relentless escalation in the fight to address sexual violence in the workplace, the community and the home.

If it feels like the news is invading your brain space and draining you emotionally, if it’s making you stumble and leaving you in shock on a daily basis – then you’re not alone. So many Australian women are feeling tired and overwhelmed, buoyed and angry all at the same time. We’re in this together.

But when the news is moving at such an almighty pace, it’s easy to miss things, to lose track and feel confused. This story is so big, so important, so impactful for every Australian woman, however, that we all want to be up to date. At the same time, however, it’s necessary and brave to take some space from this emotionally gruelling public conversation when you need to.

Enter: Future Women. On this page we commit to covering, relentlessly, the story of Australian women’s uprising to demand justice. From major breaking news, to individual women’s experiences, from the political response to ideas for policy reform. Together we’re going to stay angry, stay focused, and keep up the pressure until something changes.

The new laser-like focus on sexual harassment and assault in the nation’s parliament and beyond began when a former political staffer came forward with her story of rape allegedly perpetrated against her in a Ministerial office in Australian Parliament House. The spotlight on Australia’s culture of sexual violence against women has grown brighter than ever.

Brittany Higgins’ story ignited a movement which has since seen several members of Parliament, including the Attorney-General, accused of sexual assault, rape, and workplace harassment, rocking the senior-most levels of Australian politics. Mass demonstrations have been held across Australia calling for legislative and systematic change to better protect survivors of sexual assault and younger generations have begun to amplify their voices around consent education in schools.

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains details and references of sexual violence, sexual assault, rape and child sex abuse which some readers may find distressing or triggering.

Follow all the latest news and updates

Australia’s new Attorney-General and Federal Minister, Michaelia Cash in Perth, WA, Australia. Image credit: Matt Jelonek / Getty Images

March 29, 2021

Scott Morrison announces a historic cabinet reshuffle, dramatically increasing female representation in senior leadership positions. The new cabinet boasts of the “strongest” female representation an Australian government cabinet has ever had following growing calls for quotas to be introduced to Parliament. Senator Michaelia Cash is appointed as Australia’s new Attorney-General, replacing Christian Porter. Foreign Minister Marise Payne will lead the taskforce of the new ministerial roles – including Women’s Safety and Women’s Economic Security – Mr Morrison describing her role as the “Prime Minister for Women”.

“We are on the precipice of a revolution, whose call to action needs to be heard loud and clear.” – Grace Tame, Australian of the Year 2021

March 27, 2021

A  third Queensland woman speaks out about the conduct of Queensland Liberal MP Andrew Laming. Crystal White claims Mr Laming took a picture of her bottom on his mobile phone in 2019, while her underwear was exposed as she bent down and filled a fridge with drinks at a landscape supplies business in Brisbane.

The Australian House of Representatives at the Australian Parliament, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: Aditya Joshi

March 25, 2021

Member for Bowman, Andrew Laming, issues an apology in the House of Representatives just an hour before a major 9News investigation reveals accusations of online abuse of two of his own constituents – both women.

March 25, 2021

Scott Morrison sits down with A Current Affair host Tracy Grimshaw for the first exclusive television interview since Brittany Higgins came forward. During the interview, Mr Morrison is grilled about his handling of the situation with Grimshaw asking him, “Where have you been?”

March 25, 2021

Exactly three months since Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year, NSW Nationals MP Michael Johnsen identifies himself as the man behind the rape allegations. In a statement, Mr Johnsen says he is “devastated” by the claims made against him. He resigns from his position while police continue their investigation.

“I am confident any investigation will conclude that I am an innocent party.”— Michael Johnsen, NSW Nationals MP

Katoomba, NSW, Australia. Image credit: Tarryn Myburgh

March 24, 2021

More allegations of sexual violence from within Australian politics come to light when Trish Doyle, the Labor MP for the Blue Mountains, tells the lower house a NSW government MP allegedly raped a sex worker in a “secluded lookout” in the Blue Mountains.

“This upheaval we’re witnessing right now in Australia is entirely different, however, from the routine rearrangements we’re used to seeing in Parliament House … And what’s extraordinary is that it’s been generated nationally by the voices of people conventionally thought powerless … A young political staffer, close to the bottom of the heap. Schoolgirls. The voice of a woman from her grave, telling a contested story from long ago. Women who’ve been spat out from the system in Parliament House.”— Annabel Crabb, political journalist and commentator for the ABC

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image credit: David Gray/Getty Images

March 22, 2021

Later that night, Mr Morrison apologises for the false claims about allegations of workplace harassment within News Corp. During his apology, Mr Morrison accepted his wrongdoing saying he “deeply regrets” his “insensitive response”.

“It takes more than tears. It takes legislative change. It takes culture change. It takes working with our young people from their earliest days.”— Tanya Plibersek, Member for Sydney, Shadow Minister for Women and Australian Labor Party MP

March 22, 2021

Scott Morrison holds a press conference condemning the actions of his colleagues, labelling their actions as “disgusting” and “sickening”. “The actions of these individuals show a staggering disrespect for the people who work in Parliament, and for the ideals the Parliament is supposed to represent,” he said. The speech stood in stark contrast to the PM’s tone in past media appearances and seemed to reflect a shift toward an acceptance of the frustrations of Australian women.

“This was the speech Australian women had been wanting and wishing to hear for at least a month following a build up of national grief and frustration that the most powerful man in the country hasn’t seemed to grasp how widespread misogyny is … It was a reset, a changing of the script. But without solutions it runs the risk of being seen as a political exercise in self-preservation.”— Patricia Karvelas for the ABC

During the speech, Mr Morrison hit back at a journalist who asked how he would address the culture of sexism in Parliament by incorrectly referencing a harassment claim at News Corp.

“You’d be aware that in your own organisation that there is a person who has had a complaint made against them for harassment of a woman in a women’s toilet, and that matter is being pursued by your own HR department,” he said.

The journalist, Andrew Clennell responded he was not aware of the complaint.

“Let’s not, all of us who sit in glass houses here, start getting into that,” Mr Morrison said.

March 22, 2021

A Morrison government adviser is sacked after pixelated images of unnamed Coalition advisers allegedly performing lewd sex acts on the desks of female MPs is broadcast on Network 10, deepening the political crisis surrounding workplace culture at Parliament House.

“All these things exist on a continuum. That continuum stretches all the way along and somewhere along there is physical assault, sexual assault, rape murder. It’s not that everyone who is sexist is going to go on to become a killer but when we have culture that allows that other things to go uncheck then it’s creating immunity and impunity for people who have do those things … Yes, not all men are violent but if you flip that and ask women do you have an experience of feeling unsafe or an experience of sexual assault it will be alarming the number of women who will say yes.”— Tarang Chawla, gender equality and mental health advocate, for FW Live

March 15, 2021

Thousands of women gather in major protests around the country calling for an end to violence against women and sexual harassment in the workplace.

“We are all here today not because we want to be here, [but] because we have to be here. We fundamentally recognise the system is broken … We are here because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight.”— Brittany Higgins

On the morning of the nation-wide demonstrations, protest organiser Janine Hendry, confronts Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack in the halls of Parliament in front of the press and asks for his assurance that the government would implement changes to address the issues raised by the movement. 

“We’re drawing a line in the sand right here … You’ve been looking at this for years, I’m sorry but it’s time and it’s time now. We don’t want any more reports, we want change.”— Janine Hendry, March 4 Justice organiser

In his opening remarks in Question Time, Mr Morrison said it was “right and good” that people were able to congregate in peaceful protests as tens of thousands gathered to demand action against gendered violence in Australia.

“Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country, Mr Speaker,” he said.

March 14, 2021

ABC Journalist Louise Milligan is sued for defamation by Christian Porter over the article published on February 26. A statement put forward by solicitor Rebekah Giles claims Mr Porter was “subjected to trial by media without regard to the presumption of innocence or the rules of evidence and without any proper disclosure of the material said to support the untrue allegations.” The lawsuit sparks intense public debate on freedom of the press and the inadequacy of Australia’s legal system to deal with sexual assault allegations.

“Our democracy relies on an informed public in order to function, and they in turn rely upon public interest journalism. Our defamation laws carry great risk for all litigants, including Christian Porter, the ABC and Louise Milligan. He is entitled to seek to vindicate his reputation, but the process for doing so in our legal system is not well designed to foster an informed public nor to determine questions of criminality or fitness to hold high office.”— Daniel Joyce, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law and Justice at UNSW, for The Guardian

March 8, 2021

International Women’s Day

“I think feminism comes in waves and I can really feel another major wave is gathering, it’s gathering from activism in our own country and around the world.” – Julia Gillard, 27th Prime Minister of Australia and Chair of Beyond Blue

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces review into workplace culture at Parliament House, March 5, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. Image credit:
Mark Evans / Getty Images

March 4, 2021

The Australian reports the Defence Minister Linda Reynolds called Brittany Higgins a “lying cow”. The publication reports Ms Reynolds made the remark in front of staffers on the day Ms Higgins went public with her allegations. Ms Higgins responded to the reports saying, “The comments made by Minister Reynolds are incredibly hurtful.”

“I appreciate that it has been a stressful time but that sort of behaviour and language is never excusable … It’s just further evidence of the toxic workplace culture that exists behind closed doors in Parliament House.”— Brittany Higgins, advocate for women and former Liberal Party staffer

March 4, 2021

Scott Morrison says he will not lodge an inquiry into the allegations made against Chirstian Porter and that such an inquiry would go against Australia’s rule of law.

“It is not too late, prime minister. My plea to you is that you read the alleged victim’s statement in full; you owe that to her, to the victims of sexual assault and to your office … Never again allow a legal vacuum to consume the office of attorney general and the proper provision of legal advice to the commonwealth.” – Justice Gleeson SC, High Court Judge and solicitor general of the Commonwealth of Australia (2012-2016)

Grace Tame attends an event at the National Press Club on March 3, 2021 in Canberra, Australia. Image credit:
Sam Mooy / Stringer

March 3, 2021

2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, delivers a powerful address to the National Press Club, calling on sexual assault survivors to “share your truth”.

“It is so important for our nation, the whole world, in fact, to listen to survivors’ stories. Whilst they’re disturbing to hear, the reality of what goes on behind closed doors is more so. And the more details we omit for fear of disturbance, the more we soften these crimes.”— Grace Tame

Less than an hour later Attorney-General Christian Porter identifies himself as the Cabinet minister at the centre of a historical rape allegation. During a shock press conference, Mr Porter holds back tears while denying he ever had sexual relations of any kind with his accuser. “I can say what has been put forward in allegations simply did not happen,” he says.

“During his emotional press conference, Christian Porter – the highest law officer in our country – asked journalists to imagine, just for a second that the allegations were not true. This is a perfectly fair and reasonable question for him to ask. He is the subject of a serious and life-altering allegations that may well be false. However, the woman who made those allegations is now deceased. She cannot ask us to imagine the opposite. And so, we must do that for ourselves.”— Jamila Rizvi, Chief Creative Officer at Future Women

February 26, 2021

An article is published by ABC investigative journalist Louise Milligan, reveals the Scott Morrison and the AFP have been sent an anonymous letter regarding a 33-year-old allegation of rape against one of his Cabinet ministers. The minister behind the allegations is not named however the article spurs conversation and outrage over toxic workplace culture in Canberra.

The article claims the woman behinds the allegations told NSW police in 2020 but then took her own life before making a formal statement. There are now calls for the minister to be stood down while an investigation is conducted.

February 24, 2021

Brittany Higgins makes a formal complaint to the AFP about her alleged rape in 2019. The same day, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton reveals to Parliament he was only notified by the AFP about the allegations a few days before Ms Higgins went public.

February 22, 2021

A fourth woman makes an allegation against the same man accused of raping Brittany Higgins. The woman revealed to ABC’s Four Corners she made a formal complaint to Canberra police. Her identity and the contents of that allegation have not been made public.

“There is a procedural vacuum here … and it’s ugly and it’s upsetting, it’s horrible.”— Annabel Crabb

February 22, 2021

Two days later, The Australian reports a third woman has given a statutory declaration outlining allegations of sexual assault by the same man during the 2016 election campaign.

“A culture develops whereby those who are prone to inappropriate or unprofessional or even illegal behaviour get a sense of protection.”— Julie Bishop, former Minister for Foreign Affairs (2013 to 2018) and deputy leader of the Liberal Party (2007 to 2018), during the ABC’s 7:30 Report

February 20, 2021

A second woman tells The Australian she was raped in 2020 by the same man accused of raping Brittany Higgins.

February 20, 2021

A viral petition, launched by 22-year-old Chanel Contos, reveals more than 500 allegations of sexual assault in high-profile private schools around the country. The allegations include a raft of disturbing testimonies from current and former students detailing their experiences of sexual assault allegedly perpetrated by fellow classmates. The petition signed by well over 5000 people calls for an overhaul of sex education in schools to include more about the issue of consent.

“I am told the ‘perfect storm’ has emerged between Brittany Higgins, and me this year. But there was nothing serendipitous about this timing. The storm did not emerge; it was there the whole time. Australia felt it only as a light drizzle because our society puts up umbrellas so we can ignore the problem.”— Chanel Contos for the Sydney Morning Herald

“It’s so tempting to think that a lot of the problems we’re having around sexual assault and consent are a generational thing … but I truly believe that if we choose to cross our fingers and hope that the passage of time will improve the situation, we are ignoring the thousands of girls who have shared horrific testimony of how they are being offended against by their peers.”— Bri Lee, author for FW Live

February 19, 2021

Scott Morrison again denies knowing about the alleged rape of a former staff member after a series of text messages emerges that appear to show his office was told of Brittany Higgins’ claims soon after it allegedly took place. The text messages were between Ms Higgins and another Liberal Party staffer in early April of 2019. In the texts, the male staffer wrote that he spoke to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I have sought to be as open and honest as I can be about this matter.”— Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. Image credit: Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

February 18, 2021

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds breaks down in tears during question time in the Senate as speculation intensifies over the Federal Government’s response to Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape.

February 17, 2021

More details surrounding the allegations of Brittany Higgins are brought to light when it is revealed a steam-cleaning of Minister Linda Reynolds was office was ordered by the Department of Finance in the hours after the alleged rape.

“The male privilege in Australia’s parliament has given its members such a sense of exceptionalism, they seem to think the standards of the corporate office or roadworks site should not apply to their workplace.”— Louise Chappell, Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW and Natalie Galea, leading interdisciplinary researcher in gender justice, business and human rights

February 17, 2021

Brittany Higgins releases a statement about her decision to go public with her story, saying she wants to create change in how Parliament handles incidents of sexual assault and to ensure her perpetrator is put before the court.

“It should not have taken my story, or the story of other victim-survivors to air on national television for the Prime Minister – or any Member of Parliament – to take action on workplace sexual harassment, assault or bullying.”Brittany Higgins

In her statement Ms Higgins reveals she was only made aware of key elements of her own assault as a result of coming forward publicly including the fact security guards let her into Minister Reynolds’ suite and later came into the office “multiple times” seeing her “in a state of undress” and had debated calling an ambulance at the time of the incident.

Ms Higgins also took aim at Prime Minister Scott Morrison and singled out senior parliamentary staffers in her statement. “The continued victim-blaming rhetoric by the Prime Minister is personally very distressing to me and countless other survivors … The Government has questions to answer for their own conduct.”

February 16, 2021

After denying he knew anything about the allegations, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces two reviews to be undertaken into how parliamentary staff could be better protected against sexual harassment at work.

Brittany Higgins and Lisa Wilkinson at the March 4 Justice in Canberra, Australia. Image credit:
Jamila Toderas / Stringer

February 15, 2021

An article is published by News.com.au detailing allegations of rape by a federal political staffer inside the walls of Australian Parliament. The allegations claim a man working for then-defence industry minister Linda Reynolds took a 24-year-old female media staffer into Parliament House after Friday night drinks in March 2019 and raped her inside Ms Reynold’s office. The young woman behind the allegations is Brittany Higgins.

“I was failed repeatedly but I now have my voice and I am determined to use it to ensure that this is never allowed to happen to another member of staff again.”— Brittany Higgins

January 25, 2021

The year begins with one of Australia’s loudest voices for survivors of child sex abuse, Grace Tame, whose case led to the overturning of a Tasmanian gag laws, being named Australian of the Year.

“When we share, we heal … I remember him saying ‘Don’t tell anybody’. I remember him saying ‘Don’t make a sound’. Hear me now. Using my voice amongst a growing chorus of voices that will not be silenced.”— Grace Tame

As the events of the last three month continue to ripple through our society, Future Women will be updating this timeline to keep you up to date and informed on everything that happens next.

For anyone seeking help for sexual assault or domestic violence you can call 1800RESPECT for 24-hour support. You can also contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Image credits for header: Getty Images