Brittany Higgins has accused the Morrison government of “side-stepping accountability” on sexual assault in a blistering speech to a historic protest on the doorstep of Parliament House, as many thousands of people gathered to call for change.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded the March 4 Justice protesters have “very genuine and real frustrations”, even as he and senior ministers declined to meet the demonstrators just metres outside their Canberra offices.
“I have spoken out, with what little I have, to say this isn’t OK and they need to do better. We all need to do better,” Ms Higgins told the huge protest, to rapturous applause, on Monday.
For the first time since breaking her story, Brittany Higgins speaks at the #WomensMarch4Justice: "We are all here today not because we want to be here, because we have to be here. We fundamentally recognise the system is broken." #AusPol @SBSNews pic.twitter.com/JLrP398rmz
— Naveen Razik (@naveenjrazik) March 15, 2021
Ms Higgins, who alleges she was raped inside the Parliament House office of her then-boss Senator Linda Reynolds, returned to Canberra to speak to the march. She arrived at the event with Channel 10 journalist Lisa Wilkinson, who helped break the story exactly a month ago.
Ms Wilkinson told the crowd she had planned to pass on a message from Ms Higgins – who she called “the most courageous woman I know” – to the event. But on Sunday, Ms Higgins decided to travel to Parliament and speak herself.
“We fundamentally recognise the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institutions,” Ms Higgins said.
“We are here because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight.”
Ms Higgins joined a large group of women to speak at the rally, including Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil, broadcaster Julia Zemiro, advocate for sexual assault victims Saxon Mullins, and Indigenous leaders.
In Hobart, Australian of the Year Grace Tame spoke at a similar rally, while marches in more than 40 towns and cities across the country drew thousands more people.
In Canberra, Ms Higgins called out Mr Morrison’s office, repeating her claims his team had “actively undermined and discredited my loved ones”. She also took aim at politicians, staffers and some journalists for their conduct in recent weeks.
“I tuned into Question Time to see my former bosses, people I had dedicated my life to, downplay my lived experience. I read the news updates every day at 5am, because I was waking up to new information about my own sexual assault through the media,” she said.
“Details that were never disclosed to me by my employers, information that would have helped me answer questions that have haunted me for years.”
She claimed political leaders had “hid behind throwaway phrases like due process”, and called for politicians “on both sides of politics stop avoiding the public and side-stepping accountability”.
“It’s time we actually address the problem,” she said.
A large contingent of Labor MPs, including leader Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong and Kristina Keneally attended the rally, as did Greens MPs.
However, despite being invited by the rally organisers, neither Mr Morrison nor the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, were there.
Multiple Labor sources pointed out that Senator Payne was, at the time of the rally, sitting in the Senate chamber.
Some Coalition members, including Bridget McKenzie, Sarah Henderson, Jane Hume, Warren Entsch and Zed Seselja, did attend, with Coalition staff.
Mr Morrison said he didn’t have “a habit of going out to do any marches when they’ve come to Canberra”, but offered to meet a delegation in his office. Organisers declined, urging him to attend the rally.
Speaking in Question Time after the march, Mr Morrison said the protests were a sign of a “vibrant liberal democracy”.
“It is good and right that so many are able to gather here in this way, whether in our capital or elsewhere, and to do so peacefully to express their concerns and their very genuine and real frustrations,” he said.
“Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country.”
Mr Albanese railed at Mr Morrison’s response to the event, again calling for an independent inquiry into rape allegations against attorney-general Christian Porter.
Mr Porter has strenuously denied the claims and has launched defamation action against the ABC for its reporting on the issue.
“What I saw outside was passionate women who are angry. They are angry about what has happened to them, they are angry about what has happened to their mothers, their grandmothers, their sisters, their daughters and their granddaughters,” Mr Albanese said.
“They’re crying out that this is a moment that requires leadership. It requires leadership from this Prime Minister. And we are not getting it, Prime Minister.”
Mr Albanese said the mounting claims about sexual assault and harassment in Parliament could not be ignored.
“The stain of violence against women and children is one that is on all of us. But we are in a position of power. We can use it to make lives better and we should do just that,” he said.
Mr Albanese also faces questions about his own party, with anonymous allegations – aired in a private Facebook group – that senior Labor MPs and staff were responsible for serious sexual assault and harassment.