Published in the the Guardian 17 March 2021
Last month’s strong words from political leaders about tackling the power imbalance at the heart of our democracy between men and women, bosses and staffers, have long since been drowned out by the brutal echoes of “lying cow” and “mob rule”. The initial pledge of action for women, the commitment to change a damaging culture, was apparently abandoned at the first hint that allyship comes at a cost.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. It was Scott Morrison, after all, who used an International Women’s Day address two years ago to assure us he supported women’s rise but not “on the basis of others doing worse”. Yet there he was, basking in Grace Tame’s star wattage at the Australian of the Year awards, speaking of the power of women coming forward, until mere weeks later when a woman came forward, posthumously through her friends, with an accusation of a violent crime alleged to have been committed against her by his attorney general.
Christian Porter has rejected the allegations, vehemently proclaiming his innocence, a presumption to which he is entitled. This was enough for his boss. Our determinedly incurious prime minister has said he did not read Kate’s words before accepting the denial from his attorney general as the final word. No need to interrogate the apparently competing recollections of that fateful night and its aftermath from others – nothing to see here.
The polite suggestion that Australia deserves a slightly higher standard from our political leadership was met with a Spectoresque wall of sound about the “rule of law”. Actual lawyers offered robust precedents of confidential inquiries where relevant information could be tested, and reputations defended and perhaps restored. They were ignored.
Other erstwhile allies in the media then stepped up to do the dirty work, pivoting seamlessly from the “macro” world, in which we should believe women’s stories of abuse, to the “micro”, where those stories are baseless accusations flung at friends. Perhaps intuiting that the “lying woman” defence might seem insensitive, they dusted off the “crazy woman” line from days of yore.
The disgraceful attempt to discredit Porter’s accuser Kate by members of the media demeans us all. In pursuit of this strategy, it was deemed appropriate to publish detailed but deeply personal diary entries describing her struggle with the emotional and psychological scars, framing the anguish she articulated so hauntingly as the very reason to disbelieve her story.
Our friend Kate is dead, ultimately defeated by a life lived with mental tumult and pain. She was then thrown in the dock, found guilty of delusion by a wilfully ignorant, woefully unethical commentariat as, devoid of irony, they decried trials by media.
For women, the nightmare is real – from Chanel Contos’s devastating spreadsheet of teenage girls allegedly assaulted by their ostensible friends from the country’s most “elite” schools, to Brittany Higgins’ allegation of being raped in the defence industry minister’s office by a valued adviser, to the government’s refusal to call an inquiry into allegations against one of its own despite the wide acknowledgement that a criminal investigation cannot proceed in the absence of a living complainant.
The indisputable and undisputed statistics on sexual assault show us over and over that it is the victims whose quest for justice is confounded by our systems, and the chance of perpetrators being held to account vanishingly small.
At this vaunted moment of reckoning, women have been let down by leaders and failed by (mostly) male members of the media. Fuelled by anger, sickened by grief and galvanised by injustice endured across decades, women will no longer accept obfuscation, excuses or silence. We marched to make this clear.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. International helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.