On March 15th, thousands of protesters around Australia united to stand against sexual harassment and violence against women in the country. The protesters demanded the Australian government to introduce and implement effective policies, ensuring the safety of women, particularly in workplaces.
These protests were organised by March 4 Justice who are a “community action organisation focused on achieving equality and justice in the Australian society”. This protest was held after Australia’s now former Attorney General, Christian Porter, was allegedly accused of raping a fellow student back in 1988. Porter has denied these allegations, however, the public is demanding him to resign from his position as Attorney General.
The protest was also carried out in response to the recent rape scandal inside the Parliament House in Canberra involving the former liberal party staffer Brittany Higgins who alleged that she was raped by a colleague inside a minister’s office back in 2019. Higgins alleged that government officials failed to adequately handle the sexual assault, treating it as a ‘political problem’ instead of providing adequate support. This triggered public outrage.
March 4 Justice protesters expressed their discontent and frustration at the federal government for not actively doing more to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault cases in the workplace. Protesters in Melbourne held a fabric scroll that had the names of 899 women and children killed due to male violence in Australia since 2008.
At the March 4 Justice protest outside Parliament House in Canberra, Higgins stated that “we are here today not because we want to be here, but because we have to be here. We fundamentally recognize the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institutions”. She then stressed that “there is a confronting sense of banality about sexual violence in our community… I wasn’t a person who had just gone through a life changing traumatic event, I was a political problem”. Higgins then emphasized that “my story was on the front page for the sole reason that it is a painful reminder to women that if it [sexual assault] can happen in Parliament House then it can truly happen anywhere”.
In response to the March 4 Justice protests, the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, during question time in Parliament House stated that “not far from here, such marches even now are being met with bullets, but not here in this country’. ‘This is a triumph of democracy when we see these things take place”.
The Prime Minister’s comment were met with criticism.
UN committee member Natasha Stott Despoja stated “that this is not the example that is required to celebrate the notions of liberal democracy”. She then responded to the treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s comment about the PM ‘championing Australia’s democracy’ stating that the PM’s comment “was a poor choice of words” and that “any reference to such violence whether it was well intended or not was just completely inappropriate”.
In response to the PM comments, Australia’s Greens Party leader, Adam Bandt, stated that “it was time for men to start listening… its up to men now to change their behaviour”.
Janine Hendry, a March 4 Justice organiser, ran into the Deputy Prime Minister inside Parliament before the protest and demanded him to read over the Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work Inquiry Report that thoroughly analyses workplace sexual harassment in Australia. The report also outlines reviews and recommendations on how to further improve Australia’s workplace culture and prevent sexual harassment.
Recommendations outlined in this report included the implementation of a National Sexual Harassment Research Agency which would help develop research pertaining to sexual harassment. This agency would also help implement and guide effective policies and practices. The report also highlighted multiple strategies on how to prevent sexual assault in workplaces. This included the implementation of social change strategies, such as a national campaign that helps increase knowledge about sexual harassment as well as introducing educational initiatives targeted towards young people to help them better identify work place rights.
This report was handed to Parliament more than 12 months ago, yet the Australian government has not taken any action.
The Australian government’s handling of Brittney Higgins’ sexual assault and their unwillingness to review the 2020 Human Rights Commission report shows just how indifferent and apathetic our leaders are when it comes to women’s safety . This is a serious issue that needs federal attention. If our leaders are unable to hold perpetrators accountable and fail to provide proper support to victims, then they should not be in leadership positions.