“Momentum is swirling” for drastic change in how women are treated in politics, after an historic day in Canberra saw thousands of protesters demand urgent reform in the seat of government.
It also came as both major parties scrambled to respond to serious criminal allegations within their ranks.
Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Women Marise Payne defended their party’s commitment to women.
“I am very aware of the importance of hearing the voices of, and understanding the views of, survivors who go through enormous trauma to bring those voices forward,” Senator Payne said on ABC’s 7.30 program.
Senator Payne confirmed she had not contacted Brittany Higgins, the former Liberal staffer who has told police she was raped inside Parliament House in 2019.
She also added the “optics” of potentially being booed by the crowd played no part in her decision not to publicly face women protesting in Canberra on Monday. She and the PM remained open to meeting the women in private, she said.
“[If women don’t take up an offer to meet the PM] then we will take up the issues that are raised,” Senator Payne said.
“They are already very much part of the work that we are doing, in many cases, not in all. And there are some which I would like to speak with colleagues about.”
A frenetic day in the nation’s capital had earlier included the enormous March 4 Justice mass on the doorstep to Parliament House, Ms Higgins excoriate the government yet again for presiding over a “broken” system, and anonymous allegations against unnamed senior Labor men surface in a private Facebook group.
Embattled Attorney-General Christian Porter also launched defamation action against the ABC for reporting details of rape allegations against him – claims he denies.
I know how much courage it took for you to speak and I’m so proud of you. By sharing your story you’ve given so many others a voice. I love you.
— David Sharaz (@SharazDavid) March 15, 2021
“I have spoken out, with what little I have, to say this isn’t OK and they need to do better,” Ms Higgins told the huge protest on the front lawns of Parliament, to rapturous applause from a crowd estimated above 5000 people.
Sexual assault victims advocate Saxon Mullins also fronted the crowd in Canberra, saying men turning a blind eye to sexual misconduct “created a toxic culture of misogyny”.
She said “momentum is swirling” for change in Parliament.
Morrison criticised for ‘bullets’ comment
Speaking in Question Time on Monday afternoon, 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.”
That comment elicited a furious response from Greens leader Adam Bandt and Senator Larissa Waters, who blasted him for an “insulting” message.
“The Prime Minister’s message for women who were demanding justice and change, was ‘be grateful we didn’t shoot you’. This is unbelievably appalling behaviour,” Mr Bandt railed.
“The PM must apologise to the women who organised and attended today’s rally, for his disgraceful statements that display this man has no idea.”
Senator Waters said she “couldn’t believe the response”.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese claimed Mr Morrison had “not so much a tin ear, as a wall of concrete”.
“The Prime Minister needs to listen to what women are saying about what is happening in this building, and outside. They said enough is enough,” he roared, in what several Labor sources claimed was his strongest Parliamentary performance in months.
“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.”
Porter could take the stand
Mr Porter has taken the serious step of lodging defamation action against the ABC over their reporting on allegations made by a former acquaintance who accused him of a 1988 rape. The ABC did not name Mr Porter in initial reports, but Mr Porter later publicly outed himself as the person involved.
A statement from Mr Porter’s lawyers argued he was “easily identifiable”, despite not being named.
The lawyers said the Attorney-General “will exercise the opportunity to give evidence denying these false allegations on oath”.
Such a legal process, where Mr Porter could take the stand in court, may potentially circumvent calls for an independent investigation into the allegations.
A spokesperson for the Attorney-General said he was expected to return to work, from his current period of mental health leave, on March 31.
Distressing Labor claims
But just hours earlier, it was Mr Albanese who was under pressure, facing intense scrutiny after bombshell claims in a private Facebook group for Labor women that senior politicians and staff in the party had committed serious acts of sexual assault and harassment.
Mr Albanese said the reports were “of real concern,” and urged complainants to come forward.
“I encourage women to speak out. I encourage men to listen to those concerns and to respond,” he told a press conference.
Asked by TND if he would “proactively” investigate the allegations, Mr Albanese responded “it is hard to look into anonymous suggestions”.
“I am not aware of any claims put forward against members of the caucus,” he said.
Labor’s spokesperson for women Tanya Plibersek said her party still “haven’t got it right yet, for our own people”.
“We all need to do better,” she said on Monday.
“The fact we’ve got Labor Party staff members coming out in recent days, saying they haven’t felt appropriately supported in their workplace, makes me feel terribly sad and sorry.”
Labor frontbencher Tony Burke told the ABC he would want any person in his party who is publicly accused of such conduct to stand aside pending an investigation.
“What has been described in those posts is completely unacceptable. Those individuals, they are believed. We want them to come forward and they will be supported,” he said.
- For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 13 11 14