Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacts while speaking during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Morrison said he was shocked and disgusted by the latest sex scandal to rock his government and vowed to do more to attract women into politics. Image Credit: AP

Sydney: When Julia Banks arrived in Parliament five years ago after a successful career in law and business, she felt as if she’d stepped back into the ‘80s. Alcohol flowed freely. She occasionally smelled it on the breath of male lawmakers when they voted.

Many men in Australian politics also thought nothing of belittling women, she said, or spreading sexual rumours. More than a few treated junior employees like playthings. Once, Banks said, a fellow lawmaker introduced a new intern while slowly rubbing his hand up and down the young woman’s back.

“I could see her visibly flinch,” Banks said. “She and I locked eyes, and I’m sure the nonverbal cue to me was ‘don’t say anything, please don’t say anything, I’ll lose my job.’”

“It is the most unsafe workplace in the country,” she added.

Australia’s #MeToo moment has arrived, late but strong, like a tsunami directed at the country’s political foundation. Six weeks after a former legislative staffer, Brittany Higgins, accused a senior colleague of raping her in the defence minister’s office, thousands of women are standing up to share their stories, march for justice and demand change.

The conservative coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now facing a historic backlash, which has started to depress his polling numbers as he confronts one scandal after another.

While the misogyny problem is widespread, the focal point has become politics - a realm that more and more women describe as Australia’s most sexist backwater, where many men have long assumed they can act like kings. Women of every party say that for years, they have been demeaned while trying to do their jobs. They have been groped and insulted, ignored and interrupted - and whenever they have questioned such behaviour, they have faced a barrage of attacks.

“There’s so much stored-up anger and hurt,” said Tanya Plibersek, a Labor Party leader who is the opposition’s minister for women. “Once people start telling their stories, it’s hard to stop.”

Playing catch-up

In many ways, Australia’s political class is playing catch-up. The country’s corporations and other institutions have shifted gradually toward gender equity, but male privilege continues to reverberate through the halls of power. The causes are both common (refusing to give up power) and parochial (failing to realize that Australian culture can be sexist).

“They just won’t see it,” said Louise Chappell, a political scientist at the University of New South Wales who has been studying gender and Australian politics since the ‘90s. “And they won’t see it in structural terms.”

Many women said they faced chauvinism as soon as they entered politics.

Soon after the Labor Party asked Kate Ellis to be a federal candidate for the 2004 election, she said, she overheard her own campaign team discussing photos for her poster. “No, she looks like a bimbo in that one,” she recalled hearing someone say.

“You’d have moments like that on a daily basis,” she said.

Banks, who left Parliament in 2019 and is finishing a book about bias, said she encountered the low hum of disrespect at one of her first fundraisers, where she discovered she was not on the speakers’ list. It was all men.

There must be some mistake, she told the Liberal Party official in charge.

“‘Don’t you worry about that, darling,’” she recalled him responding, “’we’ll give you the raffle at the end.’”

Parliament proved to be even worse. “Mansplaining, talking over women, inappropriate jokes, inappropriate touching - it was all that,” Banks said.

In interviews, many current and former lawmakers described Parliament House as a testosterone-fuelled bunker. Its hallways are wide, the offices have thick walls, and every minister’s suite includes a full kitchen and a couch big enough for sleeping. Most refrigerators are stocked with beer and wine.

Parliament of men

Most members of Parliament are men, as are most staffers. In the past 20 years, Australia has fallen from 15th to 50th in the world for parliamentary gender diversity. The parliamentary delegations of the conservative Liberal and National parties, which govern with a slim majority, are more than 80% male.

Contributing to the fraternity vibe, Canberra is a part-time capital. Votes are often called after 6pm, and families are left behind in local districts, since the legislature only sits for 20 weeks a year. When it’s busy, Parliament has often been compared to a gentleman’s club, though to some, it’s more Peter Pan at the pub.

Sarah Hanson-Young, a Greens party senator, said male rivals would often shout across the chamber the names of men she was falsely accused of sleeping with.

“It was like a game these blokes were playing with just the most intense level of scorn,” she told Ellis for her book “Sex, Lies and Question Time.”

Hanson-Young sued a Senate colleague, David Leyonhjelm, for defamation after he shouted a slang at her on the floor of the chamber in 2018. She recently won a $120,000 judgment against him but endured death threats along the way.

The misbehavior, many said, trickles down from the top.

“It’s a permission ecosystem where men are behaving badly, and their young staff are seeing them get away with it,” said Emma Husar, a former member of Parliament from Sydney.

Rape allegations

Initially, Higgins, the woman whose rape allegations have shaken the country, agreed to keep quiet.

On the night of March 22, 2019, she said, she was drinking with friends in Canberra and accepted a ride with a senior male colleague who, instead of taking her home, directed the taxi to Parliament House. There, she said, she woke up “mid-rape” and told the man to stop.

She said she quickly reported the attack, informing Linda Reynolds, the defence minister, and more than a dozen others. Higgins, then 24, pursued charges with the police, but said she dropped them because of pressure from Liberal Party leaders. She said she was made to feel like she had to choose: her job or justice.

All of this stayed private until last month, when - after seeing the prime minister standing on a podium with the Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, a sexual assault survivor - she decided to speak up.

“In my mind his government was complicit in silencing me,” she said. “It was a betrayal.”

Higgins has gone back to the police to open an investigation. Several other women have since come forward with accusations in the news media against the same man. (He was fired after the alleged attack on Higgins but has not been publicly identified.)

The women’s collective claims broke the stalemate. Women in Parliament and others who had recently left called for accountability. Tens of thousands of women marched all over Australia on March 4 to demand justice, inspired by Higgins and angered by accusations against Christian Porter, then the attorney general.

Just a day earlier, as news reports emerged of an unidentified Cabinet minister accused of sexual assault, Porter had named himself as the suspect. He publicly denied the allegation - made by a woman who said he raped her when they were teenagers - and refused to resign.

Morrison, a career politician, has only recently seemed to grasp the extent of the misogyny in Parliament. Nearly three weeks after the protests, he admitted that “many Australians, especially women, believe that I have not heard them, and that greatly distresses me.”

“We must get our house in order,” he said.