Looking for justice

What would you do if a powerful figure sexually harassed or assaulted you? Who should you tell? Rounding on a year since The New Yorker and The New York Times first broke the Harvey Weinstein story, any consensus on the right answers to these questions seems a hollow possibility. Although opinions are not scarce – name names, don’t name names. Trust the process. Don’t be naive, the process wants you to fail.

“Devastating” was the descriptor most heavily leaned on this week to describe Leigh Sales’ interview with Catherine Marriott, the businesswoman who has accused Barnaby Joyce of sexually harassing her at a 2016 function in Canberra. It is sufficient. It was devastating to watch Marriott describe how her privacy, her life and her story were wrested away from her in the moment she asked for help. To explain how, at a complete loss, she asked a lawyer friend to write a confidential letter to the National Party. “All hell broke loose,” Marriott told Sales. “They leaked it. My name was leaked and that is one of the most frightening things that you will ever have to live through.”

It’s lacking, though, that word “devastating”; it fails to capture the full feeling of watching the Marriott interview. The sense is something closer to a sort of queasy frustration, not unfamiliar, one that rises with the realisation that the systems designed to protect you have started to turn on you. That they were likely never intended to protect you at all. And the privileges that may have shielded you in the past – being white, or wealthy, or educated – aren’t going to be enough this time.

In the wake of further Liberal bullying allegations, levelled this week by MP Ann Sudmalis as she announced her retirement from politics, Scott Morrison said he will fix the process. He said the new one will be “rigorous and confidential” – why the old one wasn’t remains unanswered – and then he sent Sudmalis off to serve out the rest of her term in New York as an observer at the United Nations. It’s a routine posting for problem party members, one Julia Banks was offered and rejected before Sudmalis.

We weigh up the promise of a process that can be empathic to those who’ve been bullied, harassed or assaulted by the powerful and it seems empty. It feels credulous to believe one could ever deliver them any sense of justice, not least if it’s designed by those whose very survival depends on maintaining the status quo.

In her interview with 7.30, Marriott outlined, in methodical detail, the mental arithmetic survivors often do before making a complaint. “If I went to the police, it’s me versus him, which is a toxic space to be in. It will create no outcome for anyone else. It puts what happened that night on the public record and, on top of that, I’m exhausted after eight months,” she said. “I would have had to go through a court system which is two, three, four years long. How much would that cost me? How much is that emotional toll?”

Too high, it seems, for far too many.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 22, 2018 as "Looking for justice".

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