Exclusive: How the Greens failed me over rape
On the night of the federal election, July 2, 2016, driving away from the ACT Greens election party, I was sexually assaulted in the back of a car on Commonwealth Bridge, leaving Parliamentary Circle. There were three men in the car. I sat in the back with another Greens member, 10 years older than me, who had invited himself into the car just as we drove away. While the two in the front philosophised the election results, he held me down, told me he hated me and without consent put his fingers in my vagina.
There is much said by survivors of sexual violence as to its impact on their lives, psyche, sense of self. I am not going to try to provide my perspective on loss and healing in such a short amount of words. I will, however, share my experience as a member of an allegedly progressive organisation for which I voted and volunteered, which then refused to hear or believe me. The ACT Greens have consistently sought to delegitimise me and my story, adopting the rhetoric of victim blaming (“we can’t help someone that doesn’t want to co-operate”, “you were flirting with him before the election night”), institutional unaccountability (“it’s an issue between two third parties”, “we have no responsibility”) and outright denial (“there’s two sides to every story”). I am not paraphrasing this: every quote here, and those that follow, is pulled from correspondence between myself, other members and party leaders.
The #MeToo campaign has brought with it feelings of guilt, shame and relived trauma for me, as well as deep insecurity about the validity of my hurt. Was it all my fault? Why haven’t I been able to talk about what happened to me on social media like everyone else? What made me less brave than them? Of course, everyone heals differently and has a right to privacy in grief, but the parallels between the widespread institutional complicity in other stories and that of the ACT Greens, the surface of which has merely been scratched, made it imperative that I describe my experience, albeit anonymously.
Some say they expect more from the Greens in getting social justice issues right, most likely given their parliamentary role in bringing to shame failures of the major parties, for being a party of representative “firsts” and for maintaining the most complete level of gender parity within their ranks for some time – praiseworthy achievements I do not intend to minimise. But you’ve seen the billboards, placards and stickers: “Standing up for what matters.” How cruel and cynical that representation seems to me now in hindsight, how dangerous and misleading to the hordes of young people searching for a safe community to call their own.
You can listen to Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury tell an ABC Radio audience in July this year that he thought my assault had been handled. He expressed shock at the news I was dissatisfied with actions taken by the party in response to it.
“She at the time was satisfied,” he said, “that the alleged offender had been essentially... we didn’t have him on our team anymore because of the serious allegations.” It was a gut punch to hear the interviewer accept this at face value, and reply: “Well, in that case it is difficult when the victim changes her mind down the track.”
I didn’t change my mind. Those who had interacted with me at any time in the previous year – including Shane – were aware of the consistency in my dissatisfaction. Shane’s knowledge of this, evidenced in text messages and email correspondence, spanned seven months prior to his interview. But alas, he was off the hook. Shane advised listeners: “This allegation was responded to immediately by the ACT Greens campaign manager, who met with the person concerned to offer support and find out what steps they wanted the party to take.”
I question Shane’s definition of “immediately”. The campaign manager was informed of the assault 15 minutes after it happened, when urgent help was requested from her and various other party leaders by a witness to my assault. She did not respond to this request. Instead, when she overheard another of her staffers recruiting me to a campaigning position three weeks later, she intervened and arranged a meeting. I was not to speak with anyone from the party prior to speaking with her, she said.
We met a week after that. She never asked me what happened. She said she “didn’t need to know”. She asked me what I wanted, which is not the same as offering support. She then shared with me some rumours that had been circulating, as to the relationship between myself and my assaulter. Had you been flirting? Perhaps my assault was nothing more than an invited sexual advance? I shouldn’t have to defend myself from such statements, but it appears I do: none of those statements were true. And I shouldn’t have to add, but it appears I do: even had I flirted with him, penetration without consent is still rape.
This interaction with the campaign manager strikes me as a first instance of the hypocrisy of the party. A few days prior to the election our candidate, Christina Hobbs, had misogynistic slurs written across her campaign materials. This became a rallying cry for the ACT Greens in the election’s final days, “Vote for us – we are protectors, advocates and champions of women.” But a few weeks later, here I was, trying to communicate to a female progressive leader, and the author of that messaging campaign, that I had been sexually assaulted within the scope of her organisation’s duty of care, and having it insinuated that I had asked for it.
My wounds were fresh and I retreated in the face of these allegations. We agreed on two steps to be taken. This retreat would become the backbone of Shane’s statement to the media: I didn’t complain loudly enough.
Shane advised radio listeners: “Those steps were taken, and the alleged perpetrator of the incident was stood down from volunteer responsibilities and has not volunteered with the party since.”
No, minister. As was communicated to you in the letter referenced above, the campaign manager agreed to my request for my assailant to be stood down from all volunteering. She confirmed with me that same day it had been actioned. After our meeting, she sent an email to the core staff and volunteer team: “As a final update, I regret to inform you all that [ASSAILANT] will no longer be volunteering in the office on Fridays. This was a mutual decision, and I’ve thanked [ASSAILANT] on behalf of the campaign for his work to date.”
Meanwhile, all record of my involvement was removed from any formal campaign documents. I was the only individual among my counterparts, each of whom performed identical or even less onerous roles on the campaign, who was not invited to take part in a campaign review. I was also the only one who went unthanked in an executive summary of this review. A note was put next to my name on a volunteer database: “DO NOT ASK TO VOLUNTEER”. But the man who assaulted me was thanked.
This presented a facade to party leaders that his departure was a mutual decision. He does not appear to have been stood down due to misconduct, nor as a protective measure for future volunteers.
I’m told a concerned staffer witnessed my assailant involved in neighbourhood team volunteer recruitment weeks later. I have internal proof, drawn from the ACT Greens database, that not only did the assailant attend both the “Women’s March” and a “Politics in the Pub with Adam Bandt and Caroline le Couteur” event on February 27, but that he was invited to be there by the party. At the time of this event, I was attending a general meeting, being told to my face that I was unwilling to co-operate with the party, and that this was why no investigation had been taken into my assault.
Others have reported verbal defences of his attendances: “Oh, that’s a social event, not a campaign event.” Perhaps the party cannot close the doors to members of the public, but they certainly can show discretion in who they invite to attend. They demonstrated their capability to do so – I was not invited. This kind of quibbling on minutiae by party leaders and representatives has been soul destroying. To be told that my assailant had been “stood down from all volunteering” is to tell me it’s safe for me to take part when it clearly is not. Shane’s preaching to quiet public concern is galling beyond belief and it demonstrates the party’s priorities: it is more important to be perceived as doing the right thing than to actually do so.
Lastly from this single radio interview: “Our priority was, and is, to support the woman involved in whatever action she chooses to take.” In an email I communicated a list of actions that I wanted undertaken, including an investigation. None were. Five months after the party was advised in writing of the events of July, my advocates succeeded in securing a written acknowledgement that something occurred. The party was “made aware of the circumstances surrounding the alleged sexual harassment first on 20 October and discussed in more depth on both December 5th and December 7th”. Not only did such acknowledgement come much too late but it reflected the inexcusable pattern of misrepresentation to the member base of what happened to me: the refusal to acknowledge sexual abuse and to call it harassment.
I received no support for the first year that the party knew of my assault. Once media attention was attracted, I received an apology. The party was sorry that I felt like I had been treated inappropriately. To date, the party has never acknowledged, privately or publicly, that I was assaulted or that they knew of it.
Shane is the ACT’s minister for mental health, corrections, and justice.
Three weeks prior to my assault, in a Friday core team meeting, I reported to the campaign manager and two other staff members that I was being sexually harassed by the man who ended up assaulting me. He hung around late in the office one night when I was alone. He gave me a back massage and did not stop when I asked him to. He told me that it was unsafe for young girls such as myself to be there alone at night and insinuated that he had to stay to protect me from the “bad guys”. I am sure this is familiar behaviour to many – masquerading as the protector to gain a position of trust to later abuse. The next morning, I complained. This complaint went unacted upon. An email between staffers confirms that I made this complaint. An additional four individuals have confirmed they witnessed me making the complaint. Despite this, the one person tasked with acting upon it – the campaign manager – says she did not hear about it until after the election.
“We didn’t take any action on this during the campaign because the first I heard of it was the night of the after-party,” she wrote in a later email. “There were difficulties with the offender before that, but nobody brought any issues related to sexual harassment to me until after the election (nobody raised an issue of texts with me, just the fact that offender could not follow instructions from women. This is not the same thing as sexual harassment). If this was happening on the campaign and nobody was passing it up the chain or bringing it to my attention, this is a problem because we might have been able to prevent it earlier.”
I spent the months following my assault convinced that the party wanted my silence, that by not coming forward I would be helping the election result. I was plagued by self-doubt. In hindsight, this was a natural byproduct of knowing the member base had been told repeatedly that there had been no assault. I had only been harassed. I was unwilling to co-operate in an investigation.
Perhaps my understanding of “failure to co-operate” was different. I attended a meeting with a volunteer who was the leader of the party’s grievance resolution group, to whom I provided a detailed account of my assault and the events preceding it. I spoke with an independent reviewer, to whom I provided the same account. I confirmed, in a phone call and in writing, with the deputy convenor of the party, that I wished a friend to advocate for me in a meeting. My friend did so and again shared this same account of the events. I continued to attend meetings, vote on resolutions, volunteer on the election. I would consider this co-operation. I did so in the belief that following the ACT election result there would be a shift in priorities and my concerns would be addressed. I thought action would be taken to ensure my safety and the safety of women in the party. Instead, those in charge continued to challenge the validity of my claims and ignore those requests made by myself and my supporters. From that moment forward, each leader began to deny knowledge of what had happened and adopted the rhetoric that I was belligerent and unwilling to co-operate.
At that point, I lost complete faith in the party and their internal processes. I took my complaint to Fair Work ACT, the Human Rights Commission, Volunteering and Contact ACT, and finally the Australian Federal Police.
As a volunteer, I fell outside the jurisdiction of government review bodies.
Police didn’t like my “odds”. There had been no documentation by the party of the assault or the preceding harassment to verify my statement. Time had passed and there was no physical evidence.
In December, an independent review was commissioned by the party to cover both the federal and territory election campaigns, with a mandate to speak with those involved and make recommendations to the party as to potential improvements. I was at first excluded from participation in this review. Other campaigners who had the same responsibilities as I had were included.
My advocates fought for my inclusion and I was allowed to explain my campaign experience and the circumstances of my assault and its subsequent handling with the reviewer. The review revealed three “critical incidents” that occurred during the campaigns, of which my assault was one. It recommended apologies. Those apologies were not forthcoming until media reports drew attention to their non-existence in July. This was more than five months after the recommendations were made, and a full year after senior party leaders were informed in writing of the incident.
The release of the review was highly secretive. A single hard copy of the report was available to be read, by appointment, in an office under the supervision of a party representative. Only registered members were eligible to read it. This excluded those individuals who had volunteered, and even contributed to the review, but had since left the party on their own grievance. One such individual was the primary witness to my assault, who had left the party in horror at the handling of my complaint and his own personal treatment for being outspoken in support. To me, this demonstrates the lengths the party were willing to go to when their reputations are on the line. It stands in stark contrast to the very little effort they would put into protecting their members or volunteers, and the lack of interest in protecting my safety and facilitating my healing process. Again, action was only taken to support me once allegations were made public and reputations were on the line.
This belief was reinforced later, when email correspondence between Sophie Trevitt, former party convener, convener of the election campaign team and well-respected and influential member of the party, and the current party convener Michael Mazengarb, was shown to me. In this email, Trevitt suggested that all references to “sexual assault” be edited from the independent review. She called reference to my assault and the party’s response “very damning”. About the same time, Trevitt and Mazengarb told the membership that there was never any contemplation that the report would be edited. It would be given to the party in the form it was written by the reviewer. An additional review written by a supporter of mine, who was a staffer, was excluded from the package of campaign reviews, which contained election reviews from each of her colleagues. It was represented to the party that her account had never existed. It had – they simply chose to omit it. It also detailed the failures of the party to respond to the “critical incidents”, including this colleague’s own experience of bullying and harassment.
Not all rape culture leads to rape, but this time it did.
My experience shows me the Greens expect sexual assault survivors to put “community first” and keep quiet time and time again, whenever acknowledging their failures could damage carefully cultivated reputations, and perhaps complicate the next election. I use survivors in the plural intentionally. I’ve learnt of similar stories in other states, some of which have been made public and some which have not.
So many leaders and influential people in the ACT and Australian Greens, who should have known better and claim to know better, have refused to act on my allegations of sexual assault by another Greens member. They’ve rejected my advocates and found every reason to discredit myself and them. Whether they have trouble believing I was sexually assaulted, or they believe it but see it disrupting their message to voters, or they just don’t know because they’re utterly incompetent, the effect on me is the same. They’ll tell you they’ve done their very best to address these important issues, but I am telling you they have failed to get even the basics right, and it has been nothing less than torturous and heartbreaking.
This isn’t even a case of leadership failing to represent a well-intentioned group of people who would have done something if they knew. Currently the ACT Greens has more than 700 members. Every one of them now knows what happened to me. Of that 700, I have received the support of four individuals. An additional two people sent me messages of alliance. The rest were silent. Passivity is the same as complicity. Complicity is the same as culpability. Given the organisation’s proud use of consensus decision-making, any failures of the organisation should be attributed to their active, voting member base.
Being sexually assaulted has been a very isolating experience for me. The isolation is reinforced in our culture, which tells women that they are unlikely to be believed, that to speak out is to ruin the lives of the men who assaulted them, that they should dress differently, be home earlier, have safer friends, never walk alone or they should go to the police sooner. In my case, my assault was hidden from and then questioned by a group of community progressives. When I have complained of this, I was told I was never open enough about what happened to me; I never kicked up a big enough fuss.
In a statement to The Saturday Paper, the ACT Greens co-coveners said:
ACT Greens have been aware that a volunteer asked for support following an incident on the night of the 2016 federal election since shortly after that date.
We have offered support and asked the volunteer, via their advocate, on multiple occasions since then, what they would like done about it. This includes arranging an interview that the volunteer requested with the independent consultant who provided a review of the 2016 campaign, responding to their request for a formal investigation with an offer to do so, offering to engage an independent investigator if they would prefer, and advising that we would support them in going to police about the incident.
We also made a number of changes to processes, and have begun organising training, to provide better support to volunteers and staff, and improve volunteer and staff management support during future campaigns.
We continue to be available to the volunteer who is clearly still not satisfied with the ACT Greens, and we would like them to know that we will always be open to working with them to resolve this issue.
The volunteer about whom the complaint was made has not been active as a volunteer with ACT Greens since the complaint was first made, and will not be able to volunteer with us again until the issue is resolved.
Shane Rattenbury did comment in an interview in July that he had understood that progress had been made in trying to resolve outstanding issues, and that the victim was satisfied with that work. In the same interview, he also clearly acknowledged that given the victim had gone to the media, she evidently was not satisfied, his information was wrong, and that the ACT Greens needed to work harder to see what else needed to be done.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Exclusive: How the Greens failed me over rape". Subscribe here.