Brittany Higgins
Former staffer Brittany Higgins interviewed on The Project (Image: Channel 10)

Note: this article discusses sexual assault.

What would it take to extract a genuine, effective response from the political class to the loud, clear cultural and social moment around sexual assault and toxic workplaces that has marked the beginning of 2021?

Something more than pro forma words about believing women, expressions of concerns delivered with suitably grave faces, and invocations of family, commitments to reviews — things that cost nothing.

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The government’s response has been entirely driven by political judgements. First, Brittany Higgins’ revelations were seen as a distraction, an issue that only meant an opportunity cost of time that could have been spent discussing preferred narratives (vaccine rollouts, the economy etc). A series of hastily cobbled together inquiries were announced to put out political brushfires. Second, allegations relating to Christian Porter were seen as insufficiently important to merit either the Prime Minister or — by his own account — Christian Porter from bothering to read the relevant document. The priority, it was decided, was actually the culture war issue of protecting the “rule of law” against some form of online mob.

That’s the response of a government overwhelmingly male, with only one woman — the disastrous Michaelia Cash — in its leadership structure and whose most senior woman, Marise Payne, has been almost invisible on what is, as the Minister for Women, a core responsibility for her. This is a government led by a man who has strenuously cultivated a blokey image as Prime Minister, whose first pronouncement about his governing philosophy was that he would “look after our mates”.

A number of senior journalists and commentators — most of them male — have echoed the government’s narrative, particularly but not only at outlets aligned with the government, such as The Australian.

Many of those men, it should be noted, were the same ones baying for an inquiry into Julia Gillard’s building renovations and romantic relationships before politics back in 2012, and eventually got their way with a royal commission that failed to find anything against her. “Rule of law” is clearly a flexible doctrine.

Apart from being a misleading narrative and clearly false, the reliance of these mostly male politicians and media figures on a self-serving definition of “rule of law” (basically, that the criminal justice system is the only game in town for addressing allegations of assault) is revealing for another reason.

The law, in the guise of the criminal justice system, has been, for so many women over so many decades, no guarantor of rights or protective shield, but instead the weapon used against them by men who have raped, harassed, abused and exploited them.

The court system that allowed rape complainants to have their entire sexual histories examined in forensic, public detail, along with their clothing choices, their alcohol consumption and their behaviour. The defence barristers who revelled in shredding the reputations of rape victims. The police, lawyers and jurors who refused to believe women, or who lazily dismissed them with “he said-she said”. The jurists who stroked their chins over interpretations of consent while rapists walked away free. The lawyers who extracted non-disclosure agreements from victims of harassment and worse, and the courts that threatened to enforce them.

The criminal justice system has often functioned as an industry devoted to protecting men at the expense of their victims. All in the name of the rule of law, of course.

You won’t find such slavish adulation of the rule of law from women who’ve been through that — or watched loved ones endure it, or concluded, as so many do, that they don’t want that happening to them.

None of it is incidental. It’s part of a power structure in which male-controlled institutions and systems of government serve the interests — the privileges — of men.

This is not an argument for abandoning the rule of law, or presumptions of innocence, or for implementing some legislated version of “believe women”. It’s to recognise that “rule of law”, in real-world application, isn’t some value-free philosophy that we can all praise but a tool that can be and is used by those in power. Which, historically, have been nearly all men.

It also goes to a basic gender difference. For men, the rule of law is a shield for one’s own behaviour. Men are raped and harassed, they are the victims of domestic violence, but men do not go about their day aware of their vulnerability as women do. They don’t make lifestyle and workplace and personal choices — or feel the pressure to from authority figures — based on ensuring their vulnerabilities aren’t exploited. Men are the ones, usually, doing the exploiting.

For women, the rule of law is more frequently supposed to be a shield against the behaviour of men — not their own. It’s a commitment that all are equal before the law, that no matter how powerful an abuser, a harasser, a rapist is, they will face justice, that that justice will be public.

For the majority of women, it has never worked like that. Only for the tiny fraction of abuse and rape victims who bravely preserve with seeking justice and somehow extract a conviction despite the best efforts of the criminal justice system.

Slowly, this is changing. Attempts to curtail sexual harassment, 40 years ago endemic to Australian workplaces, have slowly borne fruit, all the way to the High Court. High-profile companies now regard sexual harassment as prima facie grounds for dismissal of executives. Police now treat domestic violence and sexual assault with far greater seriousness and resources, even if still insufficiently.

But those changes have coincided with the rising level of women in the workforce and their entry into major institutions — the police, the public service, the law, medical specialties, top-tier corporations — and slow ascension to senior ranks.

In politics, that “ascension” remains, to be charitable, a work in progress. Less than 20% of Coalition House of Reps MPs are female, compared to 42% of Labor MPs. It’s better in the Senate: 42% for the Coalition and over 60% for Labor, including its two Senate leaders, and two-thirds for the Greens.

Nationally, just one quarter of Liberal MPs in lower houses at all levels of government are female, and 17.5% of Nats, compared to 44% of Labor MPs. It’s one-third of Liberal upper house members, compared to 50% for Labor and 47% for the Nats.

And take a look at the ranks of senior journalists. How many female faces — and for that matter non-Anglo faces — fill news bulletins and columns from Canberra? More than it used to be, but still nowhere near enough, especially outside the ABC and The Guardian.

The grim reality, reflecting the history of women’s basic rights to a safe workplace in Australia, is that nothing will really change until women are properly represented in those workplaces — and even then, that’s only necessary, not sufficient for change.

For men, a safe workplace is not a priority because they have never had to worry about safe workplaces. For men, a potential rapist as a colleague is a non-issue, because they don’t have to worry about their personal vulnerability.

The reaction of the government, and of many in the media, isn’t merely ideological or driven by partisan considerations. It’s hardwired into their brains as men.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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