Comment

Lucy Hughes Turnbull
From Me Too to us all

These have been an extraordinary five years. In that time, we have seen a new wave of discussion and debate about women’s safety, equity and right to respect in the workplace, the family and at large.

We need to celebrate the big wins – the adoption of so many of Kate Jenkins’ key Respect @ Work recommendations, for example, with better support for childcare and longer paid parental leave. But there is still work to do to bridge the gender pay gap, and to make women safer outside work, particularly in the domestic setting. 

The Me Too movement was started by Tarana Burke, an activist woman of colour, in 2006 on MySpace. Journalist Ronan Farrow relit the topic about a decade later, in an article in The New Yorker, in which he described allegations of assault and abuse by one of the world’s biggest movie producers, Harvey Weinstein. The story exploded in October 2017 when one of the survivors called for others to speak up on Twitter, and actor Alyssa Milano suggested posting #MeToo. The hashtag went viral.  

The conversation Burke started in 2006 calls for everyone to come forward to share their experience of abuse at home, in the workplace, at school and everywhere else. There is safety and strength in numbers, and a need for the widest possible understanding of the scale of violence against women, people of colour and other minorities.

Alongside the crisis of gendered violence is the enormous issue of disrespect and bullying at work. There is no doubt the power imbalance is exacerbated where women have less economic power compared with that of their employers. That imbalance is greater in lower-paying, insecure jobs. These people often do not have a public voice.

During the Me Too surge, the drive for digital traffic determined who was heard, but it set a fire that spread far and wide. The demand for safety, respect and equity should not be seen as arising from any single group. It is a demand for everyone, no matter how famous or how marginalised they may be. 

The Me Too movement took different forms in each country. In the United States, the world centre of civil litigation, more and more claims for compensation were made. Weinstein is back in court. As, I am sure, are many others. And we learnt a lot about the formidable power of “cancel culture”.

The outcry in Australia was loud, too. As it needed to be. Here, the system was found wanting, so there were calls to change the legal and employment rules. In 2018, the government led by my husband, Malcolm Turnbull, with Kelly O’Dwyer as minister for Women, called for an investigation by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. The subsequent report became known as Respect @ Work and was presented to the government in early 2020 when Scott Morrison was prime minister.

It took another year, and a growing wave of frustration, anger and advocacy here by people such as the then Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, women who worked as staffers at Parliament House, and many others, to speak out about child abuse, workplace abuse and gender-based violence, harassment and bullying. That wave led to the Women’s March 4 Justice in March 2021. A month later, the government responded to the Respect @ Work report. By then, enough really was enough.

That activism and advocacy has driven  the recent big achievements. Thank you to all those who spoke out with their stories, who shared them with Kate Jenkins and on the public stage. They are scarifying and alarming accounts, and it cannot have been easy, venturing out from under the trauma, grief and distress to tell them, especially given the pressure against doing so. It’s worth noting that if you want really powerful advocates, never underrate the clear voices and strong impact of brilliant and highly focused neurodivergent people such as Tame and Greta Thunberg.

 

The legislative response was in two stages, and the second was completed very recently. The first stage, in 2021, made sexual harassment a form of serious misconduct and cause for instant dismissal. It brought judges, parliamentarians and public servants within its net – and left many wondering why they were ever outside it. People were able to lodge a complaint within 24 months, up from six. 

The important addition after this year’s May election was to enshrine an obligation on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, which helps to shift the burden of proof away from the claimant. That was necessary, as sexual harassment and abuse have always been a systemic problem. The question will often start with “Do you have a workplace that prevents sexual harassment?”

That idea of changing the system by creating a positive duty to prevent harassment was a central component of the Jenkins report. The Human Rights Commission will be responsible for administering the new law, which entails an initial conciliation hearing by the commission. If a case goes to court, there is no risk of a costs order being made against the complainant. 

Hopefully this process is simple enough that legal costs for a complainant will not be too high and most cases will end with conciliation. There are calls for employers or the government to fund this initial complaint process. But the risk of unintended consequences is real – there is always a discretion for a judge in a particular case to make a costs order they see as appropriate if there is unfairness.

We should never forget that the “he-said, she-said” defence, the accusations of “asking for it” or “dressing provocatively” have a chilling effect on reporting individual incidents of harassment and violence. The principle of believing the complainant clashes with the legal burden of proof being on them to prove the allegations. The simpler the system is, the weaker the deterrent to lodging complaints of abuse, which is so underreported.

The whole idea of the Me Too movement and the Respect @ Work report was to make workers safer. So it was surprising that the politicians who resisted some of the Jenkins recommendations are often the ones most willing to drape themselves in worker safety gear. Protection from abuse and harassment is another key aspect of safety, like guardrails and fire exit signs. Now the legal system recognises it as such.

This latest work safety bill is the best gift the parliament could give to mark the fifth anniversary of the global Me Too movement. Together with more paid parental leave and greater access to more affordable childcare, it has been a great few weeks for women and indeed all Australians.

But the battle is not over. First, the recently published responses to Kate Jenkins’ “Set the Standard” report on parliamentary culture and behaviour need to be acted on and the whole sorry saga of how parliamentary staffers and officers are treated must be resolved. A disrespectful and dysfunctional parliamentary culture sets the worst possible national tone and example.

We know, too, that gender inequity is often the root cause of abuse and harassment. That is an interesting can of worms when our workforce is heavily gendered by sector, with males concentrated in relatively higher-paying sectors, such as construction, and women more prevalent in the care and social assistance sectors. That is why the introduction of longer paid parental leave and higher childcare benefits is important in terms of national productivity, to encourage more participation among women.

More widely, we must stay on the path and accelerate our progress towards the societal and cultural changes required to stamp out disrespect, harassment and violence towards women and minority groups. Abuse so often starts at a very early age, with disrespect of others learnt at home and at school.

We know the extent of the problem in Indigenous communities, especially after Bridget Brennan’s brilliant Four Corners story on the incidence of death, violence and disappearance among Indigenous women. Preventing those horrendous crimes, and other racially motivated violence, means shifting community values and behaviours, including on the part of the police and justice system. No one could argue that any pillar of the safety and justice system is perfect in this area.

So while we work on pay equity – not easy in an inflationary environment – let’s also work on Tarana Burke’s original mission. The Me Too movement she started was especially important for women of colour and minorities right across the US, and it should buttress the campaign in Australia to make Black Lives Matter. This stage of the movement should demand a societal response within local communities, from the police and justice system, and all other organisations or agencies that have, or should have, contact with the vulnerable and abused. The death toll and incidence of violence and racism is far too high. It must end.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "From Me Too to us all".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription