Around 100,000 joined March4Justice around Australia, in capital cities and regional towns, on Monday 15 March. Angry opposition to rape, sexual violence and cover-ups has erupted since the exposure of two high profile rape cases involving the national parliament.
In the first case, former staffer Brittany Higgins gave a TV interview on 15 February, alleging that in 2018 she had been raped her in the office of her boss, Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds, by another staffer, and then was undermined when she reported it. Friends of a woman who suicided during Covid lockdown in 2020, wrote to three women MPs in late February to report that the dead woman had spoken with New South Wales [NSW] police shortly before she died, about being raped in 1988, by a now Cabinet Minister. Speculation about the identity of the Cabinet Minister led the Attorney General, Christian Porter to identify himself, and to take defamation action against the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] and journalist Louise Milligan.
A young woman, Chanel Contos, understood that she too had been raped 10 years earlier whilst a school girl, and in early March began a petition for consent education in schools. It has over 38,000 signatures accompanied by over 3,500 testimonies of sexual harassment and assault of school age girls, apparently in a high proportion of cases by private-school boys.
The responses of PM Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, and other ministers have fuelled, not assuaged, the outrage. There are too many blunders, and forms of denial and cover-up to list them all. As Brittany Higgins reported at the March4Justice rally in Canberra, she “watched as the Prime Minister of Australia publicly apologised to me through the media, while privately his team actively discredited and undermined my loved ones. I tuned into Question Time to see my former bosses, people that I had dedicated my life to, deny and downplay my lived experience.”
Scott Morrison, in justifying his failure to appear at the Canberra March4Justice, said that "Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country.” As if the thought were crossing his mind that perhaps he could get rid of these troublesome women. Another speaker at the rally was recently appointed Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, who had won a legal battle to be allowed to expose the name of the teacher who had sexually abused her in high school in Tasmania.
The Government and its Ministers have become trapped in their own contradictions. They pay lip service to recognising that sexual violence against women is a serious problem, and that women should be believed. But they disbelieve and deny when faced with implications of exposure of perpetration by their own colleagues. The March4Justice rallies have focussed on sexual violence against women in political life, with a sense that if governments and politicians do not act to prevent it, then how can it be prevented elsewhere.
One of the four calls made by the March4Justice is for “Australia-wide strategies for deep cultural change in work places, and the political and criminal justice systems, focused on promoting equality, respect, fairness, integrity and a level playing field for all.” These are generous sentiments. Yet they echo the inadequate dominant academic and policy approach to violence against women, that a gendered and cultural approach can be the remedy. Many placards at the rallies suggested that the struggle to end violence against women has been going on for too long, and it has.
Other recent political decisions that are not “cultural”, endanger women, some directly, such as the privatisation of the 1800 Respect phone hotline for women, and the abolition of the Family Court. Others endanger women more indirectly, such as the cut to JobSeeker unemployment benefit back to $308 a week, after it had been $550 during the height of the pandemic. The higher rate had enabled many women and their children to escape domestic violence.
A shortage of public housing, and defunding of women’s refuges, mean many women have nowhere to go when they try to leave a perpetrator. Policing and policy entrench the victimisation of indigenous and other working class women, through child removal, mutual obligation and work for the dole. Criminalisation of sex-workers exposes them to police violence.
Ending violence against women will become far more possible when every woman has independent means to a secure livelihood, a safe home, and quality child care. This can happen when governments fund a lot more public housing, lift income support above poverty lines, and make child-care free again, as it was at the height of the pandemic.
Power imbalance and power dynamics were identified by many women discussing Brittany Higgins case, and the unusual nature of the employment relationship between MPs and their staff, which gives MPs unfettered, unchecked power to hire and fire. Whilst parliament houses as workplaces appear somewhat peculiar, in fact all employer-employee relationships are based on the power of the employer to hire and fire, even if that power is somewhat checked. Curtailing employers’ prerogative to hire and fire can decrease their power.
That prerogative has been amplified in recent years by weakening unions, and unfair dismissal laws. Further, with more rights to organise in the workplace against management, women would stand a chance of banding together to work out exactly what needs changing in their own workplace.
Power over livelihoods is a foundation that enables violence, and fuels the sense of superiority, that makes perpetrators believe they can act violently. There are many demands to be formulated and asserted, inspired by the spirit of the March4Justice, aimed at breaking not just a culture of male superiority, but breaking the material conditions that allow men and bosses to perpetrate violence against women and cover it up.