Opinion

Bri Lee
The revolution will be organised

It has been nine months since tens of thousands of people across 40 cities in Australia joined the “March 4 Justice” rallies on March 15. We were motivated by the myriad gendered injustices we’d seen and experienced in our lives, but catalysed very specifically by the horrific stories emerging from Parliament House. The historical allegations made against then attorney-general Christian Porter had not been properly handled, and neither had the recent allegations made by former staffer Brittany Higgins. It was clear to all that this particular fish was rotting from the head. (The men in both cases deny the allegations.)

The March 4 Justice had four demands: independent investigations into all cases of gendered violence with public accountability for findings; full implementation of all 55 recommendations from the Respect @ Work report; increased funding for gendered violence prevention to world’s best practice standards; and the enactment of a federal Gender Equality Act to promote gender equality, including a gender equity audit of parliamentary practices. None of these have been achieved. So, what has?

In many ways 2021 has seen Australia finally reckon with the Me Too movement that hit other democracies in 2018. There have been a remarkable number of changes in leadership, legislation and culture in the past year. Some of these wins have been in years-long pipelines, and there is certainly pushback, but as far as social movements go, it would no longer be accurate to call #MeToo in Australia a nonstarter.

New South Wales passed affirmative consent laws in November after years of survivor-led campaigning. Then, weeks later, Victoria announced it would also be amending its laws to bring in a proper affirmative consent model in 2022, in response to the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s report “Improving the Justice System Response to Sexual Offences”. The Andrews government has also committed to a 10-year “whole-of-government” strategy to address sexual violence.

Victoria also recently announced a new unit of the police service dedicated to investigating current or former officers accused of domestic and family violence. While it is right to be wary of the efficacy of cops investigating cops, the announcement is a watershed moment for the national conversation around gendered violence. Assistant Commissioner of Professional Standards Command Tess Walsh said in a statement, “We are extremely sorry about those [past cases] where we haven’t met the mark.”

In Australia it has always been easier to get more laws than it has been to make real cultural change in policing. Survivors of sexual and domestic abuse and assault have always spoken out against the further harm done to them by the police and criminal law system. In particular, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have long been unable to simply pick up the phone and call the police when things go wrong.

A stark example of this problem can be seen in Queensland. The Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce presented the first of two reports to Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman two weeks ago. The “Hear Her Voice” report makes 89 recommendations, including laying out a multistage plan to legislate against coercive control. Taskforce chair Margaret McMurdo said that “system-wide reform” was necessary before a new offence comes into effect, because “hundreds of victims have told the taskforce – in submissions and at almost every consultation we undertook – that they were not believed, their experiences were minimised or they were even turned away by police officers when seeking help to keep themselves safe from domestic violence and hold the perpetrators accountable”.

The taskforce, by majority with one dissent, recommended that the Queensland government “establish an independent commission of inquiry to examine these issues within” the police force.

In a response that only further illuminates these cultural issues, the Queensland Police Union of Employees president Ian Leavers said the report was “another woke, out-of-touch report by a retired judge that overreaches where it pertains to police”. Even the police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, said: “While I do not fear a commission of inquiry, I cannot support this recommendation.” These replies confirm the fears of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocates and academics, who warn against the further harm that will be done to Indigenous communities if police are given even more power.

The next stage of the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce will focus on sexual violence and, despite affirmative consent being enacted or promised in NSW and Victoria, there is little confidence among advocates in the sector that the outcome will be fundamentally different to the most recent Queensland Law Reform Commission report, which ignored evidence from stakeholders and recommended no significant change to the 120-year-old laws in place.

Ignoring or denying the problem is not an approach unique to Queensland’s legal leadership. Prime Minister Scott Morrison made no public reply to the March 4 Justice beyond his speech about protesters being lucky they weren’t shot at. He denied knowledge of Higgins’ allegations and rejected the many calls for some kind of inquiry into the allegations against Porter. When accusations of harassment, bullying and trolling were made against MP Andrew Laming, Morrison asked Laming to apologise and attend an empathy course. Porter’s recent announcement that he will not run at the next election was held to be a response to disclosure issues with the anonymous trust he used to cover his legal bills, not the allegations that produced the legal bills in the first instance. 

Morrison’s party consistently rejects quotas for women’s involvement, instead bleating on and on about their system of “meritocracy”, which continues to function precisely as designed: to inhibit the involvement of anyone who doesn’t look or sound like Mr Meritocracy himself, Morrison. An analysis by Guardian Australia just this week identified that female candidates were “overrepresented for marginal seats at the next federal election, while safe seats for both major parties remain dominated by males”. At present, only 24 out of 90 MPs in the Liberal Party are women, compared with 46 out of 94 in Labor and six out of 10 in the Greens.

The vacuum of leadership from Canberra on these issues has seen women elsewhere rise up and take matters into their own hands. Jo Dyer, a friend of the woman who made the allegations against Porter, has now announced she will run as an independent for the third-most marginal seat in Australia, Boothby. It is both a protest and a run for political office. Dyer in Boothby joins Zoe Daniel in Goldstein, Allegra Spender in Wentworth and Kylea Tink in North Sydney – all women running as independents on issues of climate change, gender equality and federal integrity. 

The women who have led the movement this year continue to lead. Australian of the Year Grace Tame has demonstrated a great willingness to criticise Morrison’s government, and has just announced the Grace Tame Foundation “to drive cultural and structural change, with the ultimate goal of a future free from the sexual abuse of children and others”. Saxon Mullins is director of advocacy at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, an organisation that has just welcomed Marque Lawyers’ activism-inclined partner Michael Bradley as chair. Teach Us Consent is not only a movement but now also an organisation, founded by activist Chanel Contos, lobbying for and providing holistic consent and sexuality education. Brittany Higgins is a visiting fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and was a finalist for the 2021 Human Rights Medal. In proof that these issues are mainstream, Higgins and Tame appeared together on the cover of the December issue of Marie Claire Australia.

The strength of these examples is that they are overwhelmingly survivor-led. The fact that these individuals are now supported by networked and resourced organisations suggests longevity and sustainability – it’s easier to stay in the fight when you’re not going it alone. The weakness, though, is in the homogeneity of the faces. Australia appears not-quite-ready for a feminist movement led by a woman who isn’t young, white and tertiary-educated. It would be a mistake to think this homogeneity is simply a coincidence. There are hurdles of credibility and believability that survivors with certain backgrounds – myself included – need not jump. The result is that our stories are more often believed, more often photographed and championed, and more platformed and influential.

Morrison was excited to announce drafts of new “anti-trolling” laws that would compel social media companies to collect identifying information about Australian users, thereby providing a legal avenue for the users to be sued for defamation. But as Yassmin Abdel-Magied wrote for Guardian Australia, “those who cause the most harm in our society do not need to hide … I’ve had more death threats than flat whites … Almost every single person who took part in the unrelenting tsunami of abuse and harassment against me did so using their real identity.”

Commencing defamation litigation is prohibitively expensive for the regular citizen and, conversely, anonymity online can sometimes facilitate the speaking of truth to power. Morrison spoke about the vitriol women and girls receive online when explaining this legislation, wilfully misconstruing the kind of accountability and take-down options victims of such harassment are usually looking for.

Meanwhile, on the defamation law front, Dutton won his suit against refugee advocate Shane Bazzi over a tweet but wasn’t awarded full damages. We are yet to see the impact of the new uniform legislation that has been drafted to protect “public interest” journalism. Many journalists and advocates are nervous for the first few cases to test these waters, as they flag the ultimate question here: Are so-called “women’s interests” also in the public interest? Does this government or this legal system actually believe women’s rights are human rights?

On November 30 Kate Jenkins launched “Set the Standard”, the final report from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces. The report found one in three staffers had been sexually harassed and outlined 28 recommendations, including new codes of conduct, a new Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture to provide centralised human resources support, and a new Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission “to ensure that there are independent and consistent responses to reports and complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault”. Morrison’s responses so far have been noncommittal and vague.

The ultimate test of his silence will be the result of next year’s federal election. Polling shows him tanking with women voters, but who trusts polls after 2019? And as we have seen, it is unwise to underestimate the backlash against progress on women’s issues. Hell hath no fury like a man held accountable. The fight for equality is neither a marathon nor a sprint – such analogies suggest there is a finish line at which we can arrive, together, and finally lay down our banners. But it is also important to mark and celebrate the victories. In a world that prioritises men’s secrets over women’s wellbeing, survival itself is success. When that will to survive is supported and networked, we get the types of progress we’ve seen in 2021. The revolution will be organised. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "The revolution will be organised".

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Bri Lee is a legal academic and the author of Who Gets to Be Smart.

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