Thousands of women, men and children streamed into the space in front of Parliament House in Canberra at lunchtime to participate in the March4Justice and send a message to the Australian government about violence against women.
Attendees ranged from women who had fought for women’s rights in the 1970s, like the Whitlam government’s first adviser on women Elizabeth Reid, right down to groups of schoolgirls and a few small children.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese was spotted in the crowd, together with Labor politicians Tanya Plibersek, Ged Kearney, Penny Wong and Kristina Keneally. Greens members Sarah Hanson-Young, Larissa Waters and Adam Bandt also attended. I didn’t see any Liberal politicians. Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce made a surprise appearance.
At the same time, a petition addressed to Scott Morrison was also presented to the Parliament. It called for action on gendered violence and the creation of a federal gender equality act.
March organiser Janine Hendry told the crowd, part of a huge group of protesters attending marches in cities and towns all over the country, that “enough is enough”.
“We need systemic change from government, lawyers and employers. We need measurable cultural and attitudinal change towards women and those who don’t have power.’
“If you are a boss, if you are a politician, if you are a law maker or law enforcer, if you are the one with the power and you know who you are, we request that you use your power to change the systems keeping the rest of us down.”
One of the events triggering the organisation of the March4Justice was the shocking treatment meted out to former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who was allegedly raped by a colleague inside the defence minister’s office in Parliament House.
Today, she addressed the crowd, saying that she was speaking at the rally out of “necessity”.
“We are all here today, not because we want to be here but because we have to be here.
“We fundamentally recognise that 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 that after she reported her rape, her former colleagues in the defence ministers office — who she regarded as her family and social network — treated her differently: “I was a political problem. If it can happen in Parliament House, it can happen anywhere.”
Rape survivor Saxon Mullins, the director of advocacy at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, had a very powerful message for the crowd.
“One in five women have experienced sexual violence. Men, where do you think these perpetrators are hiding?
“They are your friends. They are your co-workers. They are your football mates and they are your friends from school.”
If you fail to call out your mates on sexist behaviour and look the other way, then you are helping to create a “toxic culture of misogyny” that has enabled them to thrive, she said.
Despite the large crowd and the proximity to Parliament House, there was a very small police presence. I asked a member of the Australian Federal Police, who was lurking on the outside of the protest, if there had been any arrests. “No arrests here,” he smiled indulgently, eyeing off the well-behaved crowd.
However, if the government doesn’t listen to the protesters and take action on gendered violence, women might do more than stage rallies and present petitions. They might take those convictions to the ballot box and vote.