A reckoning or second-wave #MeToo movement? Australia's debate around sexual assault sparks reflection

With sexual assault allegations dogging parliament and amid a national conversation about believing women, the country is in an extraordinary moment in time which must be seized to progress gender equality, say experts.

2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame addresses the National Press Club in Canberra, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame addresses the National Press Club in Canberra, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Source: AAP

When Grace Tame stood on a podium next to Scott Morrison on January 25, little did she know that would be the start of what some have called Australia's second-wave #MeToo moment.

Two cabinet ministers have now gone on medical leave and are under severe pressure to resign, embroiled in separate scandals stemming from sexual assault allegations.

A government is in political crisis and the prime minister is facing questions over his handling of the saga.

Hundreds of fed-up Australian women are planning to march to the nation's capital to make their rage heard over the events of the past month.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and 2021 Australian of the Year winner Grace Tame during the 2021 Australian of the Year Awards at the National Arboretum in Canberra, Monday, January 25, 2021. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and 2021 Australian of the Year winner Grace Tame at the 2021 Australian of the Year Awards in Canberra, Monday, January 25, 2021. Source: AAP

But neither the prime minister nor Ms Tame would know that at that point. Right then, the leader of the country was presenting the Australian of the Year award to Ms Tame for her advocacy on allowing sexual assault survivors to tell their stories.

One woman saw this from afar and decided after seeing Mr Morrison with Ms Tame, she too would no longer keep her story quiet.

Her name was Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal staffer who alleges she was sexually assaulted in 2019 in the defence industry minister's office where she was employed.

"I was sick to my stomach," Ms Higgins said, of seeing Mr Morrison stand next to Ms Tame.

"He's standing next to a woman who has campaigned for 'Let Her Speak' and yet in my mind his government was complicit in silencing me. It was a betrayal. It was a lie."

Ms Higgins , and the rest is still unfolding.

The prime minister apologised after she accused him of "victim-blaming". The government has launched multiple investigations after she accused it of treating her alleged assault as a political issue. Meanwhile, her former boss Linda Reynolds - under the threat of legal action for calling her a "lying cow" - also apologised.

Her words, loud and clear, have sent shockwaves through the Morrison government.

Brittany Higgins
Brittany Higgins Source: Supplied

But it's the absence of another voice that has complicated the narrative about the importance of believing women.

An Adelaide woman, who had made an historical rape allegation against the Attorney-General Christian Porter, died last year before NSW Police could formally take her statement, forcing police earlier this week to announce it is closing any potential case.

There is no independent investigation into her allegation, and nor, as Mr Morrison has said, will there be.

'It's a reckoning'

On an extraordinary day on Wednesday March 3, three events collided to spark a debate about sexual assault and the voice of women.

In the first event, the highest law officer in the country, Mr Porter, was in Perth identifying himself as the cabinet minister who had been accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in 1988, breaking his silence to reject the accusations that were made public five days earlier.

"Nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened," he said in an emotional press conference.

Attorney-General Christian Porter
Attorney-General Christian Porter. Source: AAP

Just a few hours earlier, Ms Tame was in Canberra delivering a powerful speech on the importance of sexual assault survivors telling their stories.

"To my fellow survivors I say − it is our time," she told the audience.

"We need to take this opportunity. We need to be bold and courageous. Share your truth. It is your power."

Hours later, news broke that Senator Reynolds had referred to Ms Higgins as a "lying cow" after her former employee went public with her story.

That morning, comments by Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell telling an Australian Defence Force Academy group to avoid the "four As": alcohol, out after midnight, alone and attractive, were also circulating.

The significance of these events was not lost on many.

"It is an extraordinary kind of set of coincidences," says Sara Charlesworth, a professor of work, gender and regulation at RMIT University in Melbourne.

"The fact that all those things converged was, in a way, really telling," Professor Charlesworth said.

Adding to those events, there was also the petition by 22-year-old former private school girl Chanel Contos to have consent included in the school curriculum, after dozens of school girls wrote about their experiences of being sexually assaulted, some as young as 13. Their accounts are chronicled on the website teachusconsent.com.

Catharine Lumby, a professor of media at Macquarie University and an advisor to the NRL, says it's accurate to describe this moment in time as a second-wave #MeToo.

"It's a reckoning," she tells SBS News.

"You know, right across Australian society, we've seen conversations happening about the extent of sexual assault and sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace.

"Despite all the progress made by the women's movement over many years, we are still grappling with fundamental issues of safety for women working in our workplaces and that young women in particular are often forced to choose between having a career, and actually calling out behaviour which is, at best harassing and at worst, criminal."

'They're failing us as women'

Professor Charlesworth says there is a striking level of fury among women across the nation over the events of the past few weeks.

"There's a lot of anger out there and it's an anger that's shared across a generation of women, and men for that matter, [where they] cannot quite believe that we are where we are in 2021."

One woman who wants to do something with that anger is academic Janine Hendry.
March 4 Justice founder Janine Hendry
March 4 Justice founder Janine Hendry Source: Supplied

She had been watching events in the capital and beyond unfold with a feeling of helplessness before she turned that into a grassroots movement called #March4Justice.

On March 15, Ms Hendry is planning to stage a protest at Parliament House and deliver a petition to the government calling for action against gendered violence with 4000 people. She says she has the support of 40,000 people so far, with satellite marches organised in major capital cities.

"There's a huge groundswell of anger and sheer frustration out there with what has been happening and nothing the government has done this week … has actually done anything to dampen the anger," Ms Hendry told SBS News.

Ms Hendry believes progress over gender equality in Australia has failed.

"I was protesting and marching for equality 40 years ago. And somewhere along the line along the road, things have appeared to have stopped and even gone backwards. And here I am 40 years down the track still marching for the same thing,” she says.

"They are failing us. They're failing us as women."

'We are drowning in reports'

With International Women's Day ahead on March 8, some are questioning what progress has been made in the past few years, and what could come out of this moment.

Professor Charlesworth is concerned that the opportunity for meaningful change stemming from this 'reckoning' could be lost.

"My concern is that in the past we had seen extraordinary moments and then they're quickly swept under the carpet," she says.

"I think that the sheer amount of what's happening at the moment - all these things coming together - will make it a lot harder to sweep under the carpet."

Demands for change and action are flying fast at the government, which has launched four separate inquiries in the wake of Ms Higgins's allegations.

Professor Lumby says there are many things that could be done but the last thing needed is "another report that sits in the drawer".

"We're drowning in reports into these matters and statistics, but it's time for action."

She says that social media is playing an important role in this 'huge wake up call' for the country and its workplaces.

But, she adds, there's an important balance to be struck between public debate and the rule of law.

"We have to be very careful on one hand, not to have a trial by social media to suggest that people are guilty if the process hasn't been through the criminal court," she says.

“But on the other hand, [we need] to acknowledge that this is such a big issue in our society and in our workplaces, that there is a lot of anger out there, and that we are really going through a period of reckoning."

'I believe you'

Ms Tame's powerful words at the National Press Club undoubtedly struck a chord with many women around the country, about the importance of believing women.

"Share your truth, it is your power," she urged.

"One voice, your voice, and our collective voices can make a difference. We are on the precipice of a revolution whose call to action needs to be heard loud and clear."

Professor Charlesworth says this is the key feature that links the women of this moment - from Ms Tame to Ms Higgins and Ms Contos - to convey the same message: to believe women.

"That doesn't mean [you are] absolutely agreeing with everything else, but [you are saying], 'I believe you'.

"And so let's start from that basis."

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit .  

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

9 min read
Published 6 March 2021 at 12:28pm
By Rashida Yosufzai
Source: SBS News