Rape allegations against two members of Australia’s ruling Liberal Party have already sparked widespread protests and demands to end violence against women.
But the shocking video leaked This week, showing a male staff member masturbating on the desk of a female parliamentarian has dug new depths of depravity, sparking new calls to root out what critics say is a misogynist culture running through parliament and Australian society at large.
“There is clearly a toxic masculinity problem in parliament,” said Janine Hendry, organizer of a national March 4 Justice protest movement. “But the scary thing is that these are the role models our children, young men and women, are influenced by.”
Hendry, an academic from Melbourne, led tens of thousands of protesters in one of a series of protests last week that captured the mood of frustration and anger. Protesters called for legal reforms to protect women and for a government investigation into the rape allegations against the two party members.
The protests put pressure on the Liberal Party government, which was accused by the opposition of covering up the alleged rape of a party adviser shortly before the 2019 election.
But they also exposed the broader problem of sexual harassment and violence against women in a country where, on average, a woman dies every week in an incident of domestic violence.
The issue exploded onto the national agenda last month when Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal Party adviser alleged a colleague raped her in the parliamentary office of the Minister of Defense Industry in 2019. Higgins reported the incident to the police but initially did not follow up on the complaint as she felt her “work was stake”.
Linda Reynolds, the Minister of Defense and her boss at the time, was forced to pay compensation and apologize to Higgins for calling her a ‘lying cow’ when she went public with the allegation last month.
Two weeks later, Christian Porter, Attorney General of Australia, refuse an allegation that he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 during a debating competition. The woman who complained to the police later died by suicide, but her friends have called for an independent investigation. The request was rejected by the government.
“For a lot of people, this is the last straw. It’s so hideous, alleged rape at the highest level of government, ”Olivia Patterson said as she demonstrated outside Sydney City Hall last week.
“A lot of women have endured sexual violence and people are completely fed up with it,” she added, holding up a sign saying, “I’ve seen better cabinets at IKEA.”
The scale of the sexual assault crisis was revealed this month by an online petition calling for consent to be taught earlier in sex education in schools. The petition, which was posted by Chanel Contos, a former schoolgirl from Sydney, drew nearly 40,000 signatures and over 3,700 testimonials of abuse.
Hendry was reading Contos’ petition while having breakfast with his 16-year-old son and told the Financial Times some of the testimony had moved her to tears.
“I just thought this was my son’s life, this is his future,” said Hendry, who was so angry that she posted on Twitter asking how many women it would take to form a circle around the parliament to demand action.
Hannah McGlade, a human rights lawyer and sexual assault survivor, was among tens of thousands of women who answered the call to action and spoke at a protest in Perth.
She claimed that sexual abuse normalized during the colonization of Australia and that a “macho culture” continues to flourish to this day.
“During the border era, white men could rape and murder Indigenous women with impunity,” said McGlade, who wrote a doctorate on sexual violence. “And, you know, we haven’t made much progress.”
McGlade said the government had not passed national human rights legislation or implemented reforms proposed by the Human Rights Commission. wake of an investigation in sexual harassment in the workplace was a blatant failure.
There is a need for deep cultural change around equality for women and indigenous peoples, she added.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week denied Labor’s claim that his government covered up the alleged rape of Higgins and he tearfully appealed for a change in the public’s attitude towards women.
He’s gearing up for a cabinet shuffle, which will likely result in the removal of Reynolds and Porter from their portfolios in an effort to satisfy public outrage. But the prime minister did not propose practical measures that would address the fundamental concerns of the March 4 justice system.
Hendry is not discouraged. Instead, she is developing a grassroots movement that she believes can force the reforms needed to clean up politics and shatter the culture that permeates society.
“It could well be interpreted as the Australian #MeToo movement,” she said. “I have no doubts that this will bring about the kind of structural changes that we have seen around issues of equality and sexual harassment in the UK and the US.”