Rape allegations against two members of Australia’s ruling Liberal party have already sparked widespread protests and demands for an end to violence against women.
But the leak of a shocking video this week showing a male staff member masturbating on a female MP’s desk plumbed new depths of depravity, igniting fresh calls to stamp out what critics say is a misogynist culture that runs through parliament and wider Australian society.
“There is clearly a problem with toxic masculinity in parliament,” said Janine Hendry, organiser of a new nationwide protest movement March 4 Justice. “But the frightening thing is that these are the role models that our children, young men and women, are being influenced by.”
Hendry, a Melbourne academic, led tens of thousands of demonstrators at one of a series of protests last week that captured the mood of frustration and anger. The protesters have called for legal reforms to protect women and a government investigation into the rape allegations against the two party members.
The protests have piled pressure on the Liberal party government, which has been accused by the opposition of covering up the alleged rape of a party adviser shortly before the 2019 election.
But it has also exposed the wider problem of sexual harassment and violence perpetrated against women in a country where, on average, one woman every week dies in a domestic violence incident.
The issue exploded on to the national agenda last month when Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal party adviser alleged a colleague raped her in the parliamentary office of the defence industry minister in 2019. Higgins reported the incident to police but initially did not pursue the complaint because she felt her “job was on the line”.
Linda Reynolds, the defence minister and her boss at the time, was forced to pay compensation and apologise to Higgins for calling her a “lying cow” when she went public with the allegation last month.
Two weeks later Christian Porter, Australia’s attorney-general, denied an allegation that he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 at a debating competition. The woman who made the complaint to police later died by suicide but her friends are demanding an independent inquiry. The request has been rejected by the government.
“For many people this is the last straw. It is so hideous, an alleged rape at the highest level of government,” said Olivia Patterson, as she protested outside Sydney town hall last week.
“A lot of women have put up with sexual violence and people are just completely fed up,” she said, while holding aloft a placard stating “I’ve seen better cabinets in IKEA”.
The extent of the sexual assault crisis was exposed this month by an online petition calling for consent to be taught earlier in sex education at schools. The petition, which was posted by Chanel Contos, a former Sydney schoolgirl, has attracted almost 40,000 signatures and more than 3,700 testimonies of abuse.
Hendry was reading about Contos’s petition while eating breakfast with her 16-year-old son and told the Financial Times that some of the testimonies moved her to tears.
“I just thought this is my son’s life, this is his future,” said Hendry, who was so angry she posted a tweet asking how many women would it take to form a ring around parliament to demand action.
Hannah McGlade, a human rights lawyer and a survivor of sexual assault, was one of the tens of thousands of women to respond to the call to action and spoke at a protest in Perth.
She claimed sexual abuse became normalised during Australia’s colonisation and that a “macho culture” continues to flourish to this day.
“During the frontier times white men could rape and murder Aboriginal women with impunity,” said McGlade, who wrote a PhD on sexual violence. “And, you know, we haven’t progressed that much.”
McGlade said the government’s failure to pass national human rights legislation or implement reforms proposed by the Human Rights Commission last year in the wake of an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace was a glaring failure.
There was a need for deep cultural change around equality for women and indigenous peoples, she added.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, this week denied Labor’s claim that his government covered up the alleged rape of Higgins and he made a tearful appeal for a change in public attitudes to women.
He is preparing a cabinet reshuffle, which will probably result in Reynolds and Porter moved from their portfolios in an attempt to stem rising public anger. But the prime minister has failed to propose practical measures that would address the fundamental concerns of the March 4 Justice.
Hendry is not disheartened. Instead, she is developing a grassroots movement that she believes can force the reforms required to clean up politics and break down the culture that permeates society.
“This could well be construed as Australia’s #MeToo movement,” she said. “I’m convinced it will bring the type of structural changes we saw around the issues of equality and sexual harassment in the UK and US.”