Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised the next national plan on women’s safety will focus on the trauma of domestic and sexual abuse, sharing his anguish that Australian women are unsafe in “broad daylight”.
But Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has joined sexual assault advocates Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame in expressing her frustration and anger at recent policy decisions.
“I just can’t match this government’s actions with the platitudes and warm sentiments they are all extending today,” Ms Higgins said.
The federal government convened its National Summit on Women’s Safety following multiple sexual assault and misconduct scandals in Parliament earlier this year.
A renewed scrutiny on gender inequality issues was sparked by allegations from Ms Higgins – a former Liberal Party staffer – of being raped inside Parliament House by a former colleague.
Mr Morrison decided to open the conference as the keynote speaker, calling it “an extraordinary and important gathering” that would help inform the next national plan to end violence against women and their children.
“We can identify barriers, behaviours, practices and gaps, so that Australia is a safer place for every Australian woman and girl. We can draw on lived experience and research findings through this summit, and turn them into meaningful action,” the Prime Minister said.
“Right now, too many Australian women do not feel safe. And too often, they are not safe. And that is not OK. There is no excuse. And sorry doesn’t cut it.”
Mr Morrison – appearing via video link from Canberra’s Parliament House – spoke of women not being safe at home, at school, in public spaces or even in “broad daylight”.
“You are not safe here in this place, even this place where I speak to you from today, [you] are not always safe,” he said, in a reference to reported sexual misconduct inside Parliament.
“What started as a conversation about long-standing and serious failings in this very workplace – in this Parliament House – turned into a conversation about women’s experiences everywhere.”
Mr Morrison spoke of receiving letters from women who had experienced sexual violence, including one 74-year-old woman who said she had been raped at age 14, and others who spoke of their sub-optimal experiences with the legal system.
“Through all the letters and emails, I felt that rage, the dread and the frustration that our culture is not changing,” he said.
Mr Morrison said the next national plan on women’s safety would have a sharp focus on prevention, intervention and crisis support for violence, but also needed a new focus on “the anguish and burden of undisclosed and unresolved trauma”.
“Trauma stays with us. The next national plan must go a step further … It must look to recovery. Over years, decades, 60 years as we heard, and more,” he said.
Monday’s opening day of the summit heard from Professor Marcia Langton, Nyadol Nyuon, Sam Mostyn, Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott and numerous other corporate leaders.
Sessions focused on financial abuse, experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, coercive control and domestic violence.
Ms Tame had previously criticised the summit’s guest list as “exclusionary”.
But a panel on the Respect@Work report saw Ms Jenkins openly criticise the federal government for a “missed opportunity” to put the onus of prevention of sexual harassment on employers.
“Governments don’t open the Sex Discrimination Act that much to amend, so I really welcome that advocacy to say, ‘Well, while you’re at it, why don’t you do the rest?'” Ms Jenkins said.
“Who’s in government is in government, so I guess I’m a bit pragmatic about that. But I’m not letting go.”
The government came under fire last week for not accepting a key recommendation of the report – that legislation be changed to ensure employers have a duty to address sexual harassment.
Ms Jenkins, the author of the report, said she was unhappy with that result and would continue her advocacy.
“The one that is a missed opportunity and is central is the positive duty in the Sex Discrimination Act,” she said.
“I would just say it’s not off the agenda even though it’s frustrating.”
Greens senator Larissa Waters dismissed the summit as “political theatre” and said the federal government should show commitment by sending more funding to violence prevention and crisis housing.
“Bless the experts at the Women’s Safety Summit for so patiently saying the same things they’ve said so many times before,” she said.
“Women need more than yet another performative talkfest. They need a commitment to action.”
Elsewhere, Ms Higgins claimed she had not been officially invited to participate in the summit, despite her story being one of the main catalysts for the renewed discussion about women’s safety.
She tweeted on Monday morning that it was the ACT government’s Victims of Crime Commission that had “kindly stepped in at the last minute to have me invited as a delegate to listen in to today’s event”.
Ms Tame, the Australian of the Year, will speak on a panel on Tuesday morning, on ‘Preventing and responding to sexual violence’.
She responded to Ms Higgins’ tweet to say she “had to remind them that they’d invited me!”
“In their defence, they did invite me, if only out of obligation and to co-opt some messaging; to tick some boxes,” Ms Tame tweeted later.
“As for snubbing Brittany, what a missed opportunity to extend an olive branch. It’s beyond disappointing and hurtful, but very telling.”
The New Daily contacted the offices of Minister for Women Marise Payne and Minister for Women’s Safety Anne Ruston for comment.
Ms Tame had earlier criticised Mr Morrison for having “appropriated private disclosures from survivors to leverage his own image”.
“Gee, I bet it felt good to get that out,” she added.
Her comments echoed what she claimed Mr Morrison said to her after her Australian of the Year acceptance speech, where she spoke about her abuse at the hands of her school teacher.
“Right after I finished that speech and we’re in front of a wall of media? I s–t you not, he leant over and right in my ear, he goes, ‘Well, gee, I bet it felt good to get that out’,” she said in May.
The summit continues on Tuesday.