The nation’s politicians are back in Canberra this week. Big issues – sexual assault and violence against women – are dominating proceedings. They cannot and should not be ignored.
Parliament House is a big place. When both the Reps and Senate are in session, around 5,000 people occupy the building. Each day thousands of visiting tourists, public servants and lobbyists swell the numbers further.
Often hundreds, sometimes thousands, gather outside too, occasionally in loud and energetic protest. But Parliament House is so big and so isolating, and its occupants so busy, that sometimes Members and Senators aren’t even aware a rally is taking place outside the building. That’s a shame but it’s a reality.
That was not the case on Monday. No occupant of the building could have been unaware that thousands of mainly women were protesting outside. When I rose from my seat to make a speech in the House at 1.05pm, I was conscious Brittany Higgins was also on her feet at the same time addressing the rally. I’d been to the rally earlier and was aware of the strength of anger there.
It felt awkward to be on my feet at the same time Brittney was speaking, and I said so before seeking the Deputy Speaker’s indulgence to acknowledge her speech, to thank her for her courage and activism, to express sorrow for her experience, offering support, and wishing her the very best. I sensed the approval of the other MPs in the chamber, people representing a mix of political parties. Such is the power of the movement which flexed its muscle on Monday.
The movement Brittany was addressing was initially sparked by her terrible experiences and has been fuelled by other allegations about behaviour in the Nation’s Capital. It has been given further momentum by women around the country who now feel free and willing to share their own stories too.
But what is really making the growing movement so powerful is the slow progress of our awakening. Yes, wealthy western nations have come an extraordinarily long way since the 19th Century, but we have a long way to go.
Reviewing laws and strengthening workplace rights and protections will be important. But legislation, codes of conduct and workplace rules can only go so far. Particularly given the need to ensure they also afford procedural fairness and protection from vexatious claims and allegations.
We can only hope to have true equality, appropriate respect, and adequate protections for women when we achieve new and higher levels of cultural change. Regrettably, the magnitude of change needed has been typically incremental and generational.
That’s what we’ve witnessed in recent decades, painfully slow and inadequate improvement. On Monday, tens of thousands of women around the country made it clear that slow and incremental change is not good enough. We know they are right to issue that call because the justification in their demands and the evidence of failure can be seen all around us. It’s time.