Is it worse to commit the act, or to say that the act was done?
I grew up with a Mum who was a family law solicitor in a medium-sized country town. As you would expect, she had to keep her lips tightly sealed about the things she had seen and heard about what goes on behind closed doors in a small community, but occasionally I would hear her say something I’ve never forgotten: “Is it worse to do it, or to say it was done?”
Lately, Mum’s words have been echoing in my head, as I have watched a succession of women being publicly pilloried for daring to complain about the behaviour of their male colleagues.
For a while it seemed to be going so well. Back in March 2021, the then-PM Scott Morrison responded to allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct and sexual assault in parliament by saying: “Women are too afraid to call out bad behaviour for fear of losing a job or being intimidated in their workplace. That is not OK, and it’s not their fault, it’s the environment we have allowed to be created.” He added (apparently unironically): “This has been a very traumatic month.”
By February 2022, Parliament had made a public apology to victim-survivors. The apology was the work of a bipartisan committee and an important first step in building a culture where people are safe to report workplace violence and harassment. The apology boasted of a ‘trauma informed support for people who have experienced serious incidents’.
The subsequently established Parliamentary Workplace Support Service is at pains to emphasise the importance of confidentiality in its complaints processes, in order to provide an environment in which complainants are not victimised or bullied for speaking out. Put together, this sounded like a good step towards a world where a complaint of harassment is no longer considered a worse offence than the actual harassment itself.
Fast forward to July 2023. After more than two years of work, have we reached a point where ‘saying it was done’ is no longer a punishable offence? At the end of May, the Minister for Women, Senator Katy Gallagher, spent the best part of two weeks under what can only be described as a political attack over the timing of a complaint of sexual assault.
Over the course of the fortnight, it became clear that her crime was to have respected a complainant’s request for confidentiality.
The questioning was relentless and aggressive and made the very clear point that a complaint of sexual assault will not only leave you open to attack but may also expose anyone who supports you to harassment and aggressive questioning. In any context other than Parliament, the Opposition’s behaviour towards Senator Gallagher would have been seen as harassment and stopped. In Parliament, it was considered to be situation normal.
By mid-June, Senator Lidia Thorpe had raised an allegation of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching by another Senator. In subsequent days she was publicly accused of lying by the Senator and several news outlets took the time to note that the accused Senator had been ‘visibly shaken’ by the allegations, which he described as ‘untrue, outrageous, disgusting’.
None of the media I saw made any mention of Senator Thorpe’s obvious distress in the Senate chamber as she made the allegation, despite her agitated gestures and the tremor in her voice being clearly apparent in the recording. Speaking to Radio National later that week, Senator Thorpe said: “It’s been horrible. I became the perpetrator. I became the person that was demonised for speaking truth.”
She also noted that ‘it wasn’t until a white woman stood up and said: yeah, this happened to me too, that the media took notice. And I think that’s a great example of the …systemic racism in this country. I was not believed… and you wonder why women don’t speak out.”
This week we have seen a former Federal MP ‘outed’ as the source of a complaint about harassing emails from a Liberal party figure. Sydney radio station, 2GB publicly identified the complainant, despite the confidential nature of the complaint and the complaint process being made clear by party figures in earlier media reporting. The complainant has issued a press release in response, which describes her distress at being named.
If you were a young woman watching this, would you report a workplace sexual assault? What has our hypothetical young female complainant learned over the past three months?
Lesson one: people who attempt to apply basic rules of confidentiality to your complaint may be publicly attacked for doing so. Lesson two: if you are Black you won’t be believed unless you are supported by a white woman. Lesson three: even if the process in place to deal with your complaint is confidential, random media figures may take it into their heads to publish your name.
Kate Jenkins‘ Set the Standard report into parliamentary culture has not yet been fully implemented, although I know lots of people have been diligently working on the project. It’s critical that all people working in parliament feel safe to report sexual assault and gender-related violence. We need all parliamentarians and the media to respect the Set the Standard findings and strive for a world where reports of violence are taken seriously and treated with respect, not used to score political points or ratings. Everyone in Parliament has clearly memorised the talking points – we hear a lot about how harassment in the House on the Hill needs to stop, and yet the scapegoating of complainants continues.
It’s clear that, despite good intentions and fine words, we have not made substantial headway in accepting that women have a right to complain about inappropriate behaviour by their male colleagues. Indeed, when a woman stands up to recount an assault or other inappropriate behaviour, she is doing a service to others in her workplace – recounting her own difficult or traumatic experience in order to improve the culture of her workplace. Surely that is exactly the sort of person who should be supported and encouraged?
The reality is that the #Metoo movement rattled a lot of cages. There are a significant number of people out there who would very much prefer it if women would just shut up about their experiences. Who would prefer that approach so strongly, that they are prepared to harass and victimise those complainants and their supporters in the hope of putting them back in their box. In the last three months we have seen the backlash in full swing, and it’s really not pretty.
Sorry Mum. Apparently, it is still very much worse to ‘say it was done’.
Helen Dalley-Fisher is the Convenor of the Equality Rights Alliance based in Canberra. ERA is Australia’s largest network of organisations advocating for women’s equality and leadership. Before ERA, Helen trained in law and worked in the community legal sector, where she specialised disability discrimination.