Editorial
Denial enables abuse

The prime minister says he didn’t know that Brittany Higgins had accused a colleague of sexually assaulting her. He says he didn’t know until February 15 this year, three days after a media inquiry came into his office.

But he knows now.

This is the moment when a leader would stand up, take responsibility and face the questions that need to be answered.

Instead Scott Morrison’s only concern, it seems, is to avoid at all costs any of this sticking to him.

When a young woman says she was raped in the office of the minister for whom she worked, this is not the right thing to be concerned about.

When it comes to the assault and harassment of women though, misplaced concern abounds.

It’s there in the attitude of the Sydney high-school principal who last week told her female students not to “compromise the employment” of male teachers by wearing outfits deemed revealing.

This came just days before a petition was made public in which hundreds of current and former female students disclosed that they were sexually assaulted by male students from Sydney private schools.

In their aggregate, the numbers may be shocking. But for anyone who has ever been a young woman in high school, or listened to one, the details are all too familiar.

Behaviour such as the abuse alleged in response to this petition – or by Brittany Higgins or the litany of women who’ve come out in the wake of her story to talk about similar horrors inflicted upon them while working in parliament – doesn’t spring forth from the ether.

It’s taught, and it’s tolerated.

Too often when an accusation of sexual assault is levelled, the first concern is for the public scandal, for the fallout, for the chance it will prompt a flood of other disclosures and for the impact on the life of the accused.

Where is the concern for the person whose body has been invaded and abused? Where is the concern for the person who has to live with the trauma of what was done to them?

There is precious little, in Canberra and in our culture at large.

Instead, those who report abuse are made to feel as though they are a burden. Brittany Higgins was certainly led to believe things would be easier for everyone if she just dropped it and didn’t go to the police.

This kind of environment only serves to enable abusers.

“I cannot state strong enough the importance of timely referrals of allegations of criminal conduct,” Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw wrote in a letter to the prime minister on Thursday.

“... Any delay in reporting criminal conduct can result in the loss of key evidence, continuation of offending and/or reoffending by the alleged perpetrator. It also has the very real potential to compromise the rights of victims and other parties to the alleged offences.”

The prime minister should know this, and should acknowledge it publicly. He should not have needed his wife, Jenny, to explain to him why Brittany Higgins is a person deserving of his empathy. But without proper sex education – as called for by the woman who started the Sydney petition – and real consequences for abusers and those who enable their behaviour, nothing will change.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "Denial enables abuse".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.