This Labor conference meets at the end of an historic month for Australian women. The revelations of sexual assault in federal politics, the Marches 4 Justice held across our cities and towns – these events have sparked an outpouring of sadness, frustration, anger, and ultimately hope. I attended the Canberra march with our leader Anthony and the rest of my federal colleagues. Not since Kevin Rudd’s Apology have I seen a bigger crowd on the Parliament lawns.
In the past few weeks, at the March 4 Justice and on International Women’s Day, I’ve spoken to people from around Australia: working women and high school students; mums and dads; grandmothers who were protesting in the seventies – and who are now marching with their grandkids. Unionists and party members who’ve been fighting sexism all their political lives.
These conversations have been raw. Women and men have disclosed abuse they and their loved ones have experienced. There’s been exhaustion (“are we still having this same conversation?”) and some guilt too (“we thought we would have it fixed by now – or at least closer to fixed than it is”).
When one in five women over the age of fifteen has experienced sexual assault, and 72% of women have experienced sexual harassment, and one in three women has experienced domestic violence, and around one woman a week is murdered by a former or current partner, violence against women is a national crisis.
Women are fed up, and Scott Morrison is responding to their frustration like it’s just another political problem to manage. The march might have been prompted by events in Parliament, but it was about all women: the new army recruit, the doctor doing her internship, the bus driver, the cleaner or nurse or factory worker or shop assistant experiencing harassment at work. It was about the girl feeling uncomfortable at school; or the woman being abused in residential aged care; or the women abducted by a stranger, or bashed or murdered by someone who said he loved her.
It’s time to change attitudes and it’s time to change laws. Government has a role in both.
Our justice system is stacked against victims of sexual assault and harassment. Giving evidence, going through an adversarial court process, speaking about trauma – these can all be excruciating. And even then, only a tiny fraction of these cases ever ends in conviction.
An estimated one in ten rapes is reported to police in the first place. In New South Wales, of the 15,000 alleged sexual assaults reported to the police in 2018/19, just three percent ended in guilty verdicts.
This is a broken system. I want more rapists in gaol. Most importantly, I want to prevent rape from being committed in the first place.
These aren’t new problems. There are decades of reports sitting on the Prime Minister’s desk about women’s safety. I began work on the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children in 2007. Since then, we’ve had reports by the Family Law Council, the Law Reform Commission, the Human Rights Commission. We’ve had state led reviews and Royal Commissions. We’ve had parliamentary committee reports. Not to the mention the internal reviews into Liberal Party culture promised by Scott Morrison.
The recommendations are there. The work has been done. What we really lack is a government willing to act on them. Not to go backwards, against the evidence, like Scott Morrison’s shameful abolition of our Family Court and his defunding of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum.
Labor women have been fighting these battles at conferences, in local branches, in our communities and workplaces. And we’ve had our successes, too, over the years.
In fact, it’s only ever Labor governments that deliver real reform on gender equality. It was Labor governments that first funded rape crisis centres and women’s refuges; that first introduced no-fault divorce and established the Family Court; that wrote the Sex Discrimination Act and laws against sexual harassment; that initiated the Women’s Budget Statement; that started the National Plan on Violence Against Women and their Children.
We’ve now committed to 10 days paid DV leave, while the government wants women fleeing violence to pay for their own safety by wiping out their super.
One of the reasons that Labor leads on women’s issues are the affirmative action rules which we fought for in 1994 – and have been building on ever since. We’re now at almost 50% representation in the federal caucus, with a majority female Senators.
But there is no room for complacency. While getting closer to 50/50 means more women to push for better policy, the demands on us will not be fully met until women are safe at home, at work, on the street and in our communities. We still have a long way to go.
50/50 means better culture in the caucus and across the party. But here, too, we can’t be complacent. We can’t lecture others on behaviour that we don’t call out on our side. That’s why we’re strengthening our party’s internal complaints process.
After the events of this month, it feels like we’ve crossed a line. For all the sadness and anger, there’s also hope. The generation of inspiring young women whose bravery has made this possible will need our backing in coming months and years. Women like Grace Tame, Saxon Mullins, Brittany Higgins and many, many more are demanding change. We must deliver for them – and with them.
Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Minister for Women