Like so many other women, I am enraged that Christian Porter MP is acting leader of the House of Representatives. A position that is one of the most powerful in the country. It means that Porter is now in charge of management and arrangement of government business in the House, such as procedural motions, changes in sitting times and days, and even has the power to shutdown parliamentary debate.
By choosing to give Porter any role of leadership – let alone one with such power – sends a clear message to women everywhere about where the government stands on issues of sexual assault and harassment.
2021 has been a year of reckoning with story after story of sexual misconduct emerging from Parliament House. Former staffer Brittany Higgins bravely spoke out about her sexual assault in a Minister’s office, and the subsequent actions of a government that endeavoured to sweep this under the rug. Soon after, the ABC published details of a letter sent to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other members of Parliament, alleging that a current Cabinet Minister had raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988.
Days later, then-Attorney General Christian Porter identified himself as that minister, but categorically denied the allegations. The victim reported her complaint to the NSW Police in 2020, before suspending the investigation a day before taking her own life in June of that year. The police dropped their investigation this year, citing “insufficient admissible evidence to proceed.” Porter remains in limbo between “innocence” and “guilty”, a permanently alleged rapist.
Yet despite this, earlier this month Morrison promoted him to the role of acting leader of the House of Representatives. After what we’ve witnessed this year – with the number of sexual misconduct accusations in Parliament prompting over 100,000 people around Australia to protest sexual violence and harassment in politics, as well as gendered violence and inequality more broadly – this decision exemplifies a complete disdain towards victim/survivors of sexual violence. It’s yet another indication of the way this government elevates men who sexually assault and harass women, evidencing a complete lack of accountability or real consequences.
The temporary promotion of Porter comes only a month after the return of Barnaby Joyce to the role of Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister. Joyce previously resigned from this position in 2018 following allegations that he sexually harassed a woman in 2016 and revelations of a relationship with his former staffer, which partially spurred then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s “bonk ban” against sexual relationships between ministers and staffers.
Earlier this year, we also saw Liberal MP Andrew Laming accused of bullying, stalking, and harassing two women, while a third alleged that he took a photo up her skirt. The Queensland Liberal Nationals blocked Laming from recontesting his seat in the next federal election, despite the federal government dismissing calls to have him removed from office. Laming has nevertheless been replaced by the sole male candidate in the LNP preselection, Henry Pike, who allegedly made fat-shaming and sexist comments during his time as a Young Liberal.
Morrison and others can talk about the Forster Review recommendations until they’re blue in the face, but actions speak louder than words. And their actions are communicating loud and clear, that men’s careers are more important than women’s safety. I spoke to Dr Elise Stephenson, a feminist International Relations scholar, who told me that this “sends a worrying message about whom is rewarded, for what, in government. The fact that this has occurred just after calls for a new code of conduct in parliament is disturbing.”
Women everywhere are rightly angered that not only is Porter still in government, but he has been promoted. Prior to this, women were already turning against the Coalition, with approval ratings dropping from 41 to 37 per cent since the last election.
Grace Tame, Australian of the Year and a survivor of sexual abuse, responded to news of Porter’s promotion with a scathing article, arguing that this decision “marks a proverbial slap in the face of our entire nation.” Tame writes that it was:
a transparently deliberate, definitive statement that reeks of abuse of power and a blatant disregard of the people … an insult to all survivors [which] reinforces the idea that accused predators are too often protected, feeding into the already crippling fear of victims and bystanders … an act of emboldening perpetrators.
Women, survivors of sexual violence and allies took to the streets in March because they felt like their voices were not being heard or respected. The Porter incidence simply rubs salt into the wound.
Young women have been especially affected. Jasiri Australia, a youth-led movement for increased political representation of women, encourages girls and young women to enter politics through the “Girls Takeover Parliament” program. In previous years, 95 per cent of program alumni aspired to a political career. That figure is now 35 per cent, with many concerned for their safety.
Yasmin Poole, Martin Luther King Jr Center’s Youth Influencer of the Year, spoke with me about Porter’s appointment. She notes how this incident demonstrates that the government are ignoring us despite it being a crucial time for the Government to show young women that they are listening … There is already deep perception that Parliament is not a safe space for women, and actions like this only deepen harm.
Verbalising the sentiments shared by many around Australia, Poole argues that “we deserve more from our elected representatives.”
We have witnessed the collective roar of people fighting for a better government. One that is inclusive, diverse, and respectful. A government that truly listens to survivors and walks the walk instead of (just barely) talking the talk. Because Poole is right. We deserve so much more.