Are We Politicising Sexual Assault?
Updated: Mar 15
Trigger and content warning: this article addresses sexual assault and sexual harassment.
This article is not to debate whether or not people accused of sexual assault should remain Members of Parliament.
This article is to debate whether or not we are outraged at the issue… or outraged at a Party and using the issue accordingly.
As I sit here today, all I can fantasise about is an Australia where Julie Bishop had won the contest for leadership on August 24, 2018 (coincidentally my birthday).
What would our country have been like under strong female leadership? What would the last month have been like? What would the past 2 years have been like for many women affected in Parliament House?
Having worked in that building myself for over 5 years now, one begins to notice the traits of the ‘boys' club’. In fact, many politicians talk about this, both male and female. It is rare a sitting week goes by without the conversation of “how can we get more women into Parliament” coming up at least once.
In the past month, we have seen the worst of this boys' club mentality. A number of women have come forward over the past few weeks with sexual assault claims against politicians and staffers alike, with rapes reportedly occurring in Parliament House.
Every survivor of sexual assault deserves justice. This rarely happens. Our justice system is founded on a principle of innocent until proven guilty… and rape is difficult to undeniably prove because it usually comes down to a he said, she said. And the ‘he’s’ usually have it. My article last week addresses this.
Earlier this week, Attorney-General Christian Porter gave a press conference in which he came forward as the current sitting Minister who had been accused of sexual assault.
The Attorney-General is the Minister in charge of ensuring the integrity of the law and justice system. To hear accusations against a person of this stature made many women feel unsafe.
The uproar for me is bittersweet. It is time women get angry about the ongoing issue of sexual assault, violence and harassment and feel empowered to stand up against perpetrators. But the conversation in my circles has been directed towards women calling for Christian Porter to resign. And that angers me because he is not the only currently sitting MP who has been accused of this.
In 2013, a woman by the name of Kathy Sherriff reported a historical rape case to Victorian Police. The police investigated but found there was not enough evidence for charges to be laid against the alleged perpetrator. The case and Kathy Sherriff’s story went relatively unnoticed. In fact, I did not learn of the case until 2019 when Ms Sherriff's story re-emerged prior to the federal election. It was then I learnt of these accusations against then Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten.
When I spoke to my colleagues, family and friends about Kathy’s story, many of them brushed it off as some out-there story by a woman looking for fame. Many of these people are now the same people calling for Christian Porter to step down. In less than two years, we have moved from treating a woman’s claim against a politician as an attention-seeker to a victim… or have we?
I bring up the allegations against Bill Shorten now that there is a political frenzy happening around Christian Porter. Ms Sherriff’s allegations are often brushed off the same way they were just under two years ago.
I am in no way stating my belief in the validity of the allegations against neither Shorten nor Porter; however, I am a believer in political consistency and affording women in similar situations the same rights.
Every person who has called for Porter to step-down must also call for Shorten to step-down. Otherwise, we are blatantly telling Ms Sherriff her trauma is worth less than the trauma of someone else due to the political persuasion or the position of the person who perpetrated the assault. I believe that is disgusting. No sexual assault is more important than another nor more valid.
In the same way that the media and many politicians called on the ‘unnamed Minister’ (who we now know to be Christian Porter) to come forward about the historical rape allegation, I wonder where the calls are for the Labor frontbencher to come forward.
"What frontbencher?” many have asked me.
On Sunday, February 28, Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson received an email about a rape allegation against a Labor frontbencher which she forwarded to police. While it is likely that this letter is the same letter Kathy Sherriff sent a few days prior to Tanya Plibersek and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, I am disappointed to hear that no calls have been made for this MP to come forward.
I have read comments online about Christian Porter’s allegations being a bigger deal because he is the Attorney-General. This is such a toxic line of thinking because it prioritises one rape above another based on the social 'importance' of the perpetrator.
I have also read comments that Bill Shorten should not be forced to resign in the way Porter should be due to the fact that the police conducted an investigation into Shorten and found there was not enough evidence against him. Following this logic doesn’t make sense to me because the reason Porter hasn’t had an investigation against him by the police is due to the fact the police believe there is not enough evidence even to start an investigation.
This also then undermines the whole movement around believing survivors. Many women who have experienced sexual assault know that it is difficult to prove. Women who have gone to police rarely see their cases go any further.
Former MP Emma Husar has recently spoken out against her former Labor colleagues as well after she fell victim to discrimination at Parliament House in 2018. In an open letter to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Ms Husar has called out behaviour that she believes reinforces actions that have led to far worse behaviour in Parliament. This includes but is not limited to cover-up culture, abuse and slut-shaming. Again, when I bring up the story of Emma Husar, it is brushed off by the same people who are calling for Porter’s resignation.
The issues in Parliament House are not particular to any one Party. They are rife throughout all political Parties. By focusing on one Party and not another, we are in danger of not actually addressing the issue of a toxic workplace culture throughout.
I would like to genuinely believe that the push for Porter to step-down is not a political witch-hunt and that it is a movement of women demanding justice, demanding to feel safe and demanding to be heard. But when these same women don’t want to hear the stories of other women, I feel genuinely disheartened by the ‘movement’.
I encourage everyone who has felt a particular way about what has unravelled in Parliament House this past week to take time to reflect on their bias. Are we giving all women an equal voice? Are we addressing this issue across Party lines?
It is time that all women feel safe and see justice, no matter who the perpetrator is.
I want to address here that sexual assault is also experienced by men and at times perpetrated by women. No sexual assault is more important than another nor more valid. For the purpose of this article, I have addressed male-perpetrated sexual assault committed against women as this is the particular issue we are attempting to address in a place where I work. Support should be given to all survivors and justice should come down upon all perpetrators, no matter age, status, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background or anything else.
If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault, family violence or domestic violence, please feel encouraged and safe to call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
If you need crisis support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
If you are in an emergency, you must call 000.