Brittany Higgins at Parliament House (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Brittany Higgins at Parliament House (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyMarch 17, 2021

An incendiary moment for women in Australia

Brittany Higgins at Parliament House (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Brittany Higgins at Parliament House (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Thousands of women marched across Australia on Monday against gendered violence, after a month that delivered a visceral reckoning for the government, writes Rebekah Holt.

Among the crowds at the March4Justice rally in Sydney on Monday was a woman dressed as a vulva. She spoke with great dignity and precision about why she was protesting. None of the men in the Australian coalition government, speaking during parliamentary question time, could come close to mustering the gravitas of the woman in the vulva suit.

From capital cities to small towns, footage rolled in from across the country all day. The marches delivered the message en masse in response to allegations of sexual assault levelled against senior government ministers and renewed concerns over the treatment of women in Parliament House.

The last month has seen a visceral reckoning for the Australian government. When rape allegations by ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins landed publicly in February they should have summoned the PR wherewithal to meet them head on, especially after the bruising ABC investigation of November 2020 which lifted the rock on how few employment safeguards parliamentary workers have. 

Last month, in a remarkable one-two punch, senior female reporters from and Channel Ten broke stories that a man employed in the office of defence minister Linda Reynolds had taken his co-worker Higgins, a then 24-year-old female media staffer, into Parliament House after a Friday night drinking session in March 2019 and, she alleges, raped her inside the minister’s office.

In a sign of things to come, those two senior female journalists, working for outlets in competition with each other, shared the story, with the print story broken by the formidable Samantha Maiden of In the same news cycle Lisa Wilkinson of The Project conducted a sit-down television interview with Higgins. Such a collaborative approach is especially remarkable in the chaotic and competitive media environment of Australia today. 

While Julia Gillard’s 2012 misogyny speech was both an oratorical tour de force and a serotonin micro-dosing opportunity for Obama’s staffers, it was also a long time ago if you are on the ground in Australia. 

For New Zealanders getting their heads around what is going on here, and why it feels like an incendiary moment, a burst of momentum, it’s worth considering what hasn’t happened. The briefest tour of Australia’s spectacular blind spots has to include systematic and purposeful maltreatment of first nations people and asylum seekers.  

Australia has not only failed to do the core business of Indigenous recognition, but has had the brakes on reparation as well. Cases relating to the stolen wages (up to and including the 1980s) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still rolling through the Australian courts. 

Meanwhile refugees to Australia have found themselves caught in the internationally condemned detention centres both on and off shore; these include Australian born children currently held in detention. Both Scott Morrison, the prime minister, and Peter Dutton, the minister for home affairs, have felt emboldened enough to front media stand ups claiming they “got the children out of detention”. They haven’t. 

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Morrison is a man fond of three-word slogans and trophies. He should have clocked what was coming down the road because just eight weeks ago, at the Australian of the Year ceremony, he himself handed a trophy to one of the most remarkable women in the country. Her name is Grace Tame and she rose to prominence with the help of another exemplary female journalist, Nina Funnell (anyone spotting a theme?), via News Corp’s #LetHerSpeak campaign. In 2019, she took her legal case to be able to publicly self-identify as a rape survivor to the Supreme Court of Tasmania, and won.

After taking a trophy off the PM, Tame obliterated the vacuous “family man” talking points that Morrison had spouted less than two weeks before. 

Morrison had told media that after watching the interview with Higgins (the young woman allegedly raped in his defence minister’s office), his wife Jenny urged him to consider Higgins’ story as a father of two daughters. At the National Press Club, Tame was asked what she thought of Morrison’s statement. Using just 20 words, the 26-year-old tore the platitude apart. 

“It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience,” she said. “And, actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.”

On Monday, the Liberal government awoke to its worst polling results since the bushfires of January 2020, showing it overtaken in popularity by a decidedly lacklustre Labor. Instead of reading the room, however, Morrison – a man who would do a photo op with his last breath – and his MPs did not go down to meet the thousands of protesters at the Canberra vigil.

Into that particular vacuum of leadership Brittany Higgins stepped, wearing all white, among a crowd wearing all black and accompanied by Project journalist Lisa Wilkinson. Higgins walked onstage outside the parliament building where, she has told police, she was raped, and in the harsh Australian sunlight spoke of a “confronting sense of banality” and horrible acceptance of sexual violence against women in that country. It had to change, she demanded, in a speech that suggested Monday might be remembered not just as a moment, but the moment. 

“We are here,” she said, “because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight.”

The zeitgeist comes at you fast, Scott Morrison, even as a father. 

Keep going!