Opinion

Eighteen months after publicly reporting her assault, former Liberal staffer Dhanya Mani explains why this week does not represent ‘progress’. By Dhanya Mani.

‘I was a staffer, and so was my perpetrator’

Dhanya Mani in Sydney this week.
Credit: Saskia Wilson

Warning: This piece contains a graphic first person account of sexual violence.

 

A woman is lying on a bed. I am watching her. She tries to sit up.

Stop, please stop…

A man is masturbating, and he is trying to remove her pants. He is groping her breasts and her vagina through her clothes. It seems to be hurting her. His face is expressionless.

No, this is your idea.

She is pushed back down onto the bed.

She tries to sit up again.

But I want you to stop…

She is pushed into the bed.

No, you want this.

He chokes her. I wonder if he is going to kill her. Suddenly, her body is still. Isn’t this the part where she fights him off? But what would happen if she did? Would he rape her? Her attempts to resist seem to result in him being more physically forceful. If she cried, or screamed, would he choke her until she couldn’t breathe?

She appears catatonic when he finishes gratifying himself. He falls asleep. She creeps from the bed and runs to a corner of the house.

At some point – in the moment between getting up from the bed and sitting down on the cold tiles – the woman in the bed and the woman watching merge. I am convinced I am not a human being. I know I exist in a living, breathing body. But I know that even if the body lives and breathes, there has still been a death. The woman who had been quietly and calmly home alone that night is gone. There is the person, “Dhanya before she thought she would die”, and the body, “Dhanya after she thought she would die”.

That night – and the months of sexual harassment preceding it – were between 2014 and early 2015. I was a political staffer, and so was my perpetrator. Just as in the case of Chelsey Potter. And Brittany Higgins.

On July 30, 2019, after years of agonising over my self-worth, my career, I went public. On that date, I launched a campaign – Changing Our Headline – designed to prevent any woman from enduring what I did, both during and after my assault.

The aftermath of the assault is difficult to neatly summarise: the permanent shift in my relationship to my body. The gaslighting I experienced when I tried to tell senior people in the Liberal Party, including my supervisors in New South Wales MP Shelley Hancock’s office. Some denied I was telling the truth, others suggested I wanted it to happen or told me I should be flattered to receive the attentions of a senior staffer. Then came the coercion to keep quiet.

The apathy from the premier’s office when I made a complaint in late 2018 about what happened to me. My decision that I couldn’t work as a staffer again because walking back into that place would bring me back to my fears that I would die. Innumerable other cruelties that continue to today that are linked to my assault, too endless and tiring to list.

It is now 2.20am on February 18, 2021 and I realise, as I sit writing this, that it is the first minute I have truly allowed myself to sit with the fact I thought I would die.

Has anything changed since I told my story? No.

Are women safe working in our country’s parliaments? No.

Do I believe that any word uttered by a member of parliament – or a senior political figure – when I told my story, or in the aftermath of Brittany Higgins telling hers, reflects a genuine desire to make parliamentary staffing safe? No.

Is this issue exclusive to, or worse in, the Liberal Party? No. Changing Our Headline has received complaints from women in all major political parties in Australia, the union movement, the public service and large companies.

Since the day I told my story, I have been working tirelessly because I never wanted someone like Brittany to go through what she is experiencing now – publicly sharing her trauma with the country to persuade our parliamentarians that women deserve to be safe in the buildings where our country’s laws are made and the social fabric of our society is shaped.

Over this past week – an overwhelming blur of media interviews – I’ve been repeatedly asked why this happened to us. I’ve also been asked how we can stop this problem recurring.

The reason for Brittany’s assault, and mine – and the ongoing disclosures I receive from other women – is the same reason there have been sexual abuse scandals in every self-regulating, autonomous or unpoliced fiefdom of power and privilege. What Australia seems wilfully blind to is that each of its enclaves of power – from religious institutions such as the Catholic Church, to the judiciary, corporations and financial institutions, to our parliaments – has a misogynistic, patriarchal power structure that enables the oppression, vilification and sexual abuse of women.

Our parliaments house the most powerful people in the country, many of them white men. They have used their power to create one of the most exploitative and damaging workplaces imaginable. Whether federally, through the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, or on a state and territory level through laws that govern the employment of political staff, parliamentarians have legislated to protect their self-interest at any cost. Staff can be hired and fired without cause at any time and are specifically excluded from the remit of employment law, whether through the Fair Work Act or industrial relations legislation.

Our country’s parliaments are also the only place where the police operate subject to the authority of the presiding officers. As plainly declared on the Parliament of Australia website, this has unique “immunities and privileges”:

“It is established practice that police do not conduct investigations, make arrests, or execute any process in the precincts without consultation with and the consent of the Presiding Officers.”

This is why Brittany wasn’t afforded the hard-won procedural fairness and resources that survivors of sexual assault should be. An extremely vulnerable young woman who was found with her dress pulled up to her waist, disoriented, intoxicated and hurt was not taken to hospital, nor afforded the opportunity of a forensic examination because of her workplace, the building in which she was subjected to a horrific crime.

This week, news coverage has been dominated by alleged “progress”. Our prime minister said “sorry” to Brittany, and so did Linda Reynolds, in whose ministerial office Brittany worked. Two inquiries were instituted. Labor has been possessed of apparent moral outrage. But sadly, none of these events is as positive as it might sound.

Morrison’s and Reynolds’ choice to apologise was calculated, as the involvement of their senior staff was undeniable. If they didn’t, they would risk calls for their resignation. What is telling, though, is that after his apology Morrison switched tack. The line became that he knew nothing. This, despite his senior staffer, Fiona Brown, being intimately involved with the management of the aftermath of Brittany’s sexual assault. It was a bizarre admission when one considers this means Morrison has either created a workplace in which he admits there are no rules to bind staff to disclose serious crimes, or he is lying. He is gaslighting a woman sexually assaulted in the building he is ultimately tasked with managing, given the peculiarities of its “immunity”.

Neither of these inquiries is a genuine attempt to fix the issues that render parliamentary staffing a misery – and often literally torturous for women. To lead the first, the prime minister has appointed Celia Hammond, a Western Australian Liberal MP who has decried the sexual agency of women and claims any sexual encounter outside the confines of a monogamous, heteronormative relationship is harmful to women. She has slandered feminism and suggested campaigning for female equality at work harms us because it makes us feel we shouldn’t stay home to look after the kids. The Stephanie Foster initiative is no better. Morrison suggests that one person – not a team of independent investigators or a fully resourced legal inquiry – is all that’s required to develop a mechanism to make arm’s length complaints from a political party.

Vitally, these initiatives are not designed to change the MOPS Act or other legislation that leave staffers suffering assault and misconduct at the hands of colleagues or politicians without any meaningful access to remedy. Morrison has no plans to afford staffers any real rights.

Labor’s response is not better. Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek have pointed the finger at Liberal ministers while failing to take any responsibility. Not one word in their joint statement acknowledges that female Labor staffers are just as at risk because of where they work. The opposition has been calling all week for an independent external review, which Morrison agreed to on Wednesday.

But Labor has said any review of sexual misconduct in parliament should be modelled after the British Parliament’s review, but that review did not fundamentally change what was broken either. What’s needed is encoded legal rights for staff, supplemented by binding, clear workplace policies.

The British review produced a paltry one-page “behaviour code” that failed to specifically deal with sexual misconduct or bullying, and its “Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme” has no autonomous legal power. It is only empowered to refer its findings to the committee on standards unless both parties mutually consent to an informal resolution. The committee has absolute discretion regarding whether it acts on the recommendations of the scheme’s commissioner.

In other words, it is a rebranded but equally useless iteration of the status quo in Australia. We don’t need a rebranded Department of Finance to produce extremely expensive paperweights that are redundant, irrelevant and insulting.

Where are survivors left? We are worse off than when this week began. Brittany Higgins’ trauma and abuse are not being afforded the respect, remorse and reform she deserves – that all survivors deserve. We have a prime minister who’s told us he did not care what happened to us until his wife told him to imagine a white woman was his daughter; as a woman of colour, I’m fairly certain it’s impossible his limited imagination could ever stretch far enough to consider the needs of anyone with pigmented skin. We have an opposition who didn’t bother to properly Google their one-page attempt at the moral high ground and suggested a broken version of the exact same non-process we have now.

I am devastated, sad and angry. Do I have hope, based on the past 18 months, and this past week? No. Will I stop fighting? Absolutely not. Changing Our Headline continues to hear from brave women, and I am committed to helping them. I will fight for a political culture, legislative scheme and society that affords women the dignity, respect and safety they deserve. No woman should go through what I went through. No woman deserves to go through what Brittany has endured.

I am proud of the new self I have created since my assault. The person I am today is defined by my commitment to transform my trauma into purpose. I am privileged to publicly, fearlessly and honestly fight for women. Advocacy for women has always been, and sadly remains, an uphill battle. But as so many before me, it is not a choice to advocate. Rather, it is necessary to survive and prevail so political life can finally begin to possess the conditions required for women to thrive. So, I will. 

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

Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "‘I was a staffer, and so was my perpetrator. Just like Chelsey Potter. Just like Brittany Higgins.’".

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Dhanya Mani is a lawyer and the founder of Changing Our Headline