The #Metoo Movement Isn’t Over. Not Down Under. Not Anywhere.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Australia’s first female prime minister called out sexism in parliament eight years ago, her speech went viral. Addressing the male opposition leader sitting across from her in the chamber, Julia Gillard said: “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”
Her address — still in circulation on TikTok where it is a hit — continues to resonate with young women around the world who recognize their own experiences in Gillard’s fury.
This week, they’re watching as allegations of rape and unwanted sexual advances against a senior minister and a former staffer in Australia’s ruling conservative party roil the country’s politics. They can also clearly see the tone-deaf response by current Prime Minister Scott Morrison to the complainants — based on an implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that leaves young women vulnerable to inappropriate behavior without consequences — and the toxic workplace he presides over. The senior minister categorically denies the allegations.
It’s certainly not just an Australia problem. In the U.S., two former aides have accused New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment — which he denies — while across the border in New Jersey, a high-level working group in January released a 76-page report on harassment, sexual assault and misogyny in the state’s politics in the wake of allegations against some people involved in running the 2017 election campaign of Governor Phil Murphy. None involved Murphy.
And in India a former minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government brought a defamation suit against a woman who accused him of sexual harassment in an attempt to silence her and the charges. He lost that case last month in a rare victory for the country’s nascent #MeToo movement.
Globally, these events have confirmed for women what they already knew. The system actively discourages those who’ve been raped from coming forward and going through the so-called “proper channels” of the police and the legal system. In one of the Australian cases, three government ministers, staff in the prime minister’s office and the parliament house security team knew an incident had occurred in the defense minister’s office in 2019. And yet no action was taken.
Morrison is already under pressure over his handling of the multiple sexual assault claims. He referred the latest case to authorities. But police in the state of New South Wales closed their investigation on Tuesday, citing insufficient evidence. The incident stretches back to 1988 when the victim — who died last year — was just 16 years old. At a media conference Wednesday, Attorney General Christian Porter revealed he was the senior minister in question and strenuously denied the charges. “I can say categorically that what has been put in various forms in allegations, simply did not happen,” Porter said, noting he would take a short period of leave but would not step down.
Earlier, before Porter came forward, Morrison said he would not ask the minister to stand down. While “these are very distressing issues that have been raised,” Morrison said “the proper place for that to be dealt is by the authorities, which are the police — that’s how our country operates.”
Morrison may be hoping that’s the end of it. But it seems women from his Liberal Party — which despite its name is politically conservative — have had enough. Liberal MP and party whip Nicolle Flint unexpectedly announced last week she was quitting politics, after previously calling out the “sexist rubbish” women face in parliament. A former minister, Sharman Stone, last week revealed to the ABC — the country’s national broadcaster — that, before she retired from parliament in 2016, male lawmakers in Canberra had described themselves as the “swinging dick club.”
There has been little genuine discussion in Australia about just what kind of climate that creates for women working in federal politics. Although the country was an early leader in terms of granting women the vote — that happened in 1902, compared to 1920 in the U.S. and 1918 in the U.K. — women still only make up around one-third of all parliamentarians. The imbalance is more acute in the Liberal Party — only 23% of their politicians are women, compared to the opposition Labor Party’s 47%.
And it is starting to hurt Morrison. A poll released this week from Essential Media indicates there’s been a double-digit drop in support for the prime minister among female voters (although his overall popularity remains strong.)
A huge 65% of respondents said the government has been more interested in protecting itself than the interests of those who say they’ve been assaulted. Among Morrison’s own voters, 51% agreed with that statement. It also found just 27% of women thought political offices could ensure a safe work environment for them.
The nation has long had a problem with rape. One in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. A 2018 study found one-in-eight respondents agreed that a man is justified in having non-consensual sex if the woman initiated intimacy. The U.S. statistics are no less shocking. One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted rape, or rape, in her lifetime, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization RAINN reports. In India, government data shows crimes against women occur 39 times every hour.
As Sarah Maddison, professor in political science at the University of Melbourne, notes, just adding more women to the roll call of a nation’s lawmakers doesn’t on its own transform the boys’ club of politics, which is a microcosm of society at large. “These institutions, in Australia and around the world, are deeply gendered and provide cover for men to behave badly and perpetuate sexual violence against women, while protecting the status quo,” Maddison told me.
Power structures are stacked against women, despite rape laws, workplace policies and the cases that make it to court. “Every woman knows that what is going to be on trial in these situations is them, perceptions of their morality, their behavior, their sobriety,” Maddison says. “It is almost never the men who end up on trial.”
And while the recent sexual assault scandals are unlikely to have electoral consequences for the Morrison government, they are a powerful continuation of the global #MeToo movement. “All of these cases in different countries collectively turn up the heat on male-dominated institutions, they are educative to the wider public and they prompt debate. We are seeing slow, but determined change in these spaces that is being led by women,” she says.
It is a call for fundamental reforms repeated around the world. The question is, will men in power and the machinery behind them finally listen — and act.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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