The Sexual Abuse Scandal Rocking Australia’s Parliament Is the Tip of the Iceberg

A series of shocking revelations have exposed endemic sexual harassment and abuse in Australia’s parliament. To change things, we need to hold abusers to account and empower women at work.

Australia's attorney general Christian Porter leaves a press conference in Perth on March 3, 2021, after he outed himself as the unnamed cabinet minister accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. (Stefan Gosatti / AFP via Getty Images)

Recent revelations have exposed an epidemic of sexual harassment in Australia’s parliament, centered around Scott Morrison’s coalition government. We have learned of an alleged rape that took place in a ministerial office. Other ministers have engaged in extra-marital affairs with female staff before going on to bully and harass those women out of their jobs.

And just this week, details were made public of the horrific rape of a sixteen-year-old girl, allegedly committed in 1988 by Australia’s current attorney general, Christian Porter.

When Porter faced the media to address the allegations, he presented himself as the victim, insisting on a due process that is routinely denied to women subjected to abuse and assault. If he were to resign, Porter said, “there wouldn’t be much need for an attorney general anyway, because there would be no rule of law left to protect in this country.”

After a long search for justice, Porter’s accuser took her own life last year, over thirty years after the incident. Partly as a result, the New South Wales police have closed their investigation. In the face of evidence and testimony from the woman’s friends, the federal government has rejected widespread calls for an independent inquiry.

The reactions of Porter and Morrison are symptomatic of a deep-seated culture of misogyny and abuse in Parliament that demands thoroughgoing change. If a culture of abuse — and inaction — continues to reign at the heart of our democratic institutions, more women will be abused, and the hideous merry-go-round of revelations will continue, with consequences for women throughout Australian society.

Ruling Class Power and Patriarchy

When the media breaks a story revealing the toxic, patriarchal culture within powerful, elite institutions, the collective reaction follows a pattern. First, there is shock. Then, gallingly, our surprise evaporates as we remember that these abuses have happened before and, as experience tells, they will likely happen again. To break the pattern, we first need to ask why this keeps happening.

In her landmark 1975 text, Damned Whores and God’s Police, Anne Summers detailed the manifold ways in which Australia’s male rulers built a patriarchal culture that divides women and colonizes their bodies. This was reinforced by myths about gender and domestic and public life, many of which persist today.

Although women have made gains since the 1970s, the ongoing prevalence of abuse in elite institutions shows that the problem is inextricably linked to power, privilege, and patriarchy. Take, for example, colleges at some of Australia’s wealthiest universities. Decade after decade, cases of abuse at sandstone campuses emerge with alarming regularity, pointing to a failure by the authorities to take abuse seriously, and highlighting the absence of real consequences for abusers. It suggests that the elite’s sense of entitlement to wealth goes hand in hand with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.

Since the high-water mark of the women’s liberation movement in the ’70s, neoliberalism has steadily appropriated the language of feminism. Today, talk of “choice” and “empowerment” conceals the lack of real progress. This amounts to the calculated undoing of the gains of second-wave feminism.

Meanwhile, conservatives have sought to reimpose the nuclear family and traditional gender roles on women. In 2004, former prime minister John Howard changed the Marriage Act to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman. In the 2004 budget, his treasurer Peter Costello urged women to produce more children: “one for the father, one for the mother, one for the country.”  In January 2020, former prime minister Tony Abbott added class prejudice to this sentiment, stating that “middle class women do not have enough kids. Women in the welfare system have lots of kids.”

In the same month, Bettina Arndt received an Order of Australia award for her services “to gender equality.” A men’s rights activist and self-styled sex therapist, Arndt has argued that women should endure unwanted sex in marriage for the sake of their husbands. Survivors of abuse and domestic violence protection advocates condemned Arndt, and she was subsequently revealed to have lied about her qualifications. Nevertheless, the Council of the Order of Australia — which is stacked with conservatives — refused to strip her of the honor.

Despite the explosive impact of former Labor PM Julia Gillard’s 2012 speech condemning misogyny, we have a long way to go. Summers’s call for liberation as a rejection of “an extant exploitative class system” is still unfinished business for feminists and trade unionists.

Abuse in the Workplace and Parliament

Parliament is not the only workplace where abuse is rife. As it stands, 64 percent of women report having experienced bullying, harassment, or violence at work. As a leader in the union movement, I have met many of them.

I remember a warehouse worker who was sexually harassed by her boss. She worried that if she spoke up, she wouldn’t get another shift. I remember a migrant woman picking vegetables on a farm who suffered assault on a daily basis. Whenever she complained or said she’d go to the police, her employer threatened her visa. I remember a call center worker who regularly endured customers screaming sexist abuse at her over the phone, just for doing her job.

Unlike most other workplaces, what happens in Parliament has broader consequences. When the prime minister refuses to acknowledge sexual abuse allegations in his workplace, or take action when they are exposed, it harms women everywhere. It sends the message that dangerous behavior is something to be tolerated, or worse, that it is normal. It tells women that if they speak up, they are likely to be ignored, disbelieved, and even persecuted.

I worked as a federal parliamentary staffer (not for the Coalition) both in government and in opposition. I wanted to be part of a collective with a vision for a fairer society and the guts to pursue it, and I still believe that this work is important. Alongside my female colleagues, however, I experienced unacceptable treatment during my time in Parliament.

I wish that I had felt safer at work. I wish that I had been safer at work. Instead, I learned that the culture in Canberra is one that tolerates and even encourages excess. A model of masculinity predominates in which powerful men view women with sexual expectations, both implicit and explicit. And the competitive, transactional culture of Parliament creates an intimidating environment where your gender marks you apart.

As a woman, you are treated with less respect than your male colleagues and expected to endure unwanted jokes, comments, and attention from those with power. The persistence of stereotypical gender roles and norms can also mean being rendered invisible to the gaze of powerful men, which also has harmful consequences. Professional boundaries are blurred and ignored. There is an unspoken understanding that being safe means staying silent, lest there be a political scandal, or you lose your job.

This is why I doubt that anybody who works in Parliament will have been surprised by the cascade of revelations of abuse and the inaction that has followed. It’s likely that more accusations will come to light in the coming months. The starting point for reforming Parliament is to acknowledge the depth and severity of the problem — failure to do so is tantamount to complicity. Investigations into individual cases and hastily set up 1-800 hotlines dealing with complaints are not enough.

Fighting Back Against Sexist Abuse

There are some precedents for the kind of change that’s necessary. While there is still work to be done, over a decade ago, the National Rugby League (NRL) recognized that their culture enabled sexist abuse and assault. The NRL has taken action to chip away at the problem, including listening to women and educating men.

They have engaged experts, conducted research, and spent millions on education. The NRL has also introduced a zero-tolerance policy toward violence against women. Now, conduct that people would once have passed off as “boys being boys” is subject to disciplinary action. While cases of harassment and abuse still occur, the progress has been marked.

Abuse thrives in darkness — and sunlight is the best disinfectant. But so far, Canberra has lagged far behind the NRL. Parliament’s blinds remain tightly closed. The prime minister has failed to take any action, giving the lie to his claim to take gendered violence and inequality seriously.

As a first step, Morrison should hold an investigation into the attorney general’s conduct to determine whether the first law officer of the land is fit for his job. But the work does not end there.

To end a culture that starves and shames women into compliance, we need far-reaching legislative interventions. The conviction rate for sexual assault is still shockingly low, and the gender pay gap is 13.4 percent. Despite this, the prime minister and Christian Porter are leading a new round of attacks on unions and workplace rights. We can expect the impact of those attacks on women to be especially bad.

In addition to earning less, women are overrepresented in insecure work. The legislation proposed by the Liberals will make this worse, deliberately entrenching precarious work and making it harder to lift wages.

Instead, we need an industrial relations system that works for all workers, women included. Instead of eroding conditions, we have to fight for equal pay, family violence leave, and secure jobs. Beyond this, to end sexual harassment and gendered violence, it is necessary to empower women at work, whether they work at a call center, a warehouse, a farm, or in Parliament. We need women to lead in their workplaces, including as union delegates and health and safety representatives.

We have only recently begun to acknowledge that gendered violence and psychosocial injuries are occupational health and safety issues. Instead of brushing away allegations, we need to listen to women, and take action whenever abuse is committed. Seeing gendered violence through an occupational health and safety prism will empower health and safety representatives, regulators, and unions to address and prevent the hazards and injuries resulting from gendered violence.

While accused politicians cry crocodile tears, unions and women — the targets of government attacks — are leading the charge for meaningful change. And where Parliament is concerned, those in power should end the self-indulgent hand-wringing and take real action. Then and only then will abusers face the consequences they deserve.