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Australia sex assault protests pressure Morrison to deliver reform

Thousands join 'March 4 Justice' rallies as high-profile political scandals burn

Protesters in Sydney join nationwide demonstrations on March 15 over the treatment of women in Australian politics, following explosive sexual assault allegations.   © Reuters

SYDNEY -- Swirling scandals over alleged sexual assaults and toxic politics brought tens of thousands of protesters into Australia's streets on Monday, cranking up pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government.

"I'm really angry about the injustice; I am so pissed off that we have to do this," said Dianne, who joined the "March 4 Justice" rallies in Sydney. Demonstrators, mostly women, turned out in towns and cities across the country -- including Canberra, where a crowd gathered outside Parliament House to demand change.

The protests are leading many to wonder whether this is a watershed #MeToo moment for the country and its political class. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd certainly thinks so, having declared recently that the days of "male sexual entitlement are over."

The storm of controversy swelled after a former political staffer, Brittany Higgins, went public with an allegation that she was raped by a colleague in the office of current Defense Minister Linda Reynolds at parliament two years ago. The government's handling of the incident has been widely criticized.

Higgins, who has become a prominent face of the movement calling for justice, spoke at the Canberra protest on Monday and accused Morrison of publicly apologizing to her through the media "while privately his team actively discredited and undermined my loved ones."

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins addresses the March 4 Justice rally in Canberra on March 15.   © AAP Image via Reuters

Sexual violence was already coming into the spotlight after Grace Tame, a survivor and advocate, was named Australian of the Year in January. Other allegations have subsequently come to the fore, none bigger than a 1988 rape accusation against current Attorney General Christian Porter -- which prompted the nation's top law enforcer to issue a tearful and vigorous denial at a news conference earlier this month.

The movement has echoes of the reckoning Hollywood faced a few years ago, as well as a vigil in London over the weekend following the killing of a woman who had been merely walking home. Fueling the raw anger in Australia are rising numbers of domestic violence cases and reports detailing how shortfalls in the legal system are letting victims down.

For 53-year-old Dianne, the reason she marched in Sydney was closer to home.

"I've got two daughters and I want them to do whatever they want to do, and not have to fight and protect themselves against people who don't have any respect for other human beings," she said.

For Morrison, the immediate question is what to do about Porter. Both he and Reynolds have taken leave for "health reasons." Pressure is mounting for an independent inquiry into the allegation against him. Porter was 17 at the time of the alleged incident, and his accuser, who was also a teenager, died by suicide last year.

Porter on Monday launched defamation proceedings against Australia's national broadcaster over its reporting on the matter.

Morrison has argued that because police are not proceeding with a criminal investigation, Porter is innocent under the law. Nevertheless, many, including some of the nation's top legal bodies, are wondering how the attorney general can do his job with the public's confidence while such a serious claim hangs over his head.

Either way, the outcry is about more than one man.

Arguably, it is an accumulation of anger over the Liberal Party-led government's perceived lack of commitment to addressing gender inequality during its seven-year run -- a run Morrison aims to continue in the next election to be held by 2022.

In 2013, the government abandoned the gender impact statement, a measure which analyzed how federal budgets disproportionately affected women. The statement had featured in every budget for the previous 30 years.

The prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott -- famously accused by predecessor Julia Gillard of being a misogynist in a speech that went viral -- also appointed himself the Minister for Women. He claimed his greatest achievement in the role was abolishing a tax on carbon as women were "particularly focused on the household budget."

Last year's budget, announced in November, received widespread criticism for ignoring the needs of women despite women being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other recent actions, or lack thereof, have reinforced perceptions that the culture of Parliament House is increasingly out of step with broader society. The government, for instance, has not implemented any recommendations from a landmark report on sexual harassment in the workplace released over 12 months ago.

Sarah Hanson-Young knows too well about archaic attitudes in politics. The federal parliamentarian, who was elected to Australia's senate at age 25, says she has experienced years of sexual harassment in Canberra. Fed up, she sued another member of parliament for defamation after he told her to "stop shagging men" during a debate on women's safety.

"Parliament House and politics in general is still very much a boys' club in Australia," said Hanson-Young, now 39. "Parliament itself is still dominated by men and the culture is very blokey." As a result, she added, politics is years behind "what is acceptable in normal society these days."

Protesters gather outside the Sydney Town Hall during the nationwide "March 4 Justice" rallies demanding better protections for women on March 15. (Photo by Mitch Ryan)

Indeed, a cultural change is underway across many workplaces after corporate Australia's own #MeToo moment last year, when misconduct allegations at two leading financial institutions led to swift resignations by top executives.

Shareholder accountability has had a large part to play, argued Nicola Wakefield-Evans, Australian chair of the 30% Club, a movement which advocates for stronger female representation on company boards. Another factor was the recent Royal Commission inquiry into misconduct in the banking, superannuation and financial services industry.

"Companies have had to do a lot of work around culture and behavior, around modernizing their policy settings, and that's led into boards and senior management teams having to align those organizations and structures around that," she said.

But while times are changing, Wakefield-Evans noted broader legislative and structural impediments concerning Australia's tax, child care and pension systems that work against gender equality. She suggested this was frustratingly at odds with the country's status as a progressive modern democracy.

"Australia educates women probably at the best of the OECD countries," she said. "More girls in Australia leave high school than boys; more women go on to do university courses at a higher level than their male counterparts; and still today, in 2021, a women's working life goes downhill from the day she starts work."

When it comes to sexual assault, specifically, others argue that real cultural and institutional changes are needed to protect women.

Rachel Loney-Howes, a criminology lecturer at Wollongong University, noted that despite some success in legal reforms after 40 years of feminist advocacy, 1 in 5 white women in the country will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. For women of color, the figure is around 1 in 2.

"The system continues to fail survivors because it is built on foundations that continue to undermine survivors when they come forward," Loney-Howes said. "Victim-blaming and rape myths continue to operate within the criminal legal system in ways that discredit their testimony resulting in further injustices."

She called for "a shift toward believing survivors when they come forward and challenging sexism, misogyny and violence when people witness it."

The Wollongong academic was skeptical the "March 4 Justice" protests would lead to substantive legal reform. But parliamentarian Hanson-Young was more optimistic that the country is on the cusp of transformative change.

"I think there is a reckoning happening," Hanson-Young said. "The '#MeToo' movement has taken a while to take hold in Australia, but we are now seeing it in full swing."

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