SYDNEY, Australia — When Julia Banks arrived in Parliament five years ago after a successful career in law and business, she felt as if she’d stepped back into the ’80s. Alcohol flowed freely. She occasionally smelled it on the breath of male lawmakers when they voted.
Many men in Australian politics also thought nothing of belittling women, she said, or spreading sexual rumors. More than a few treated junior employees like playthings. Once, Ms. Banks said, a fellow lawmaker introduced a new intern while slowly rubbing his hand up and down the young woman’s back.
“I could see her visibly flinch,” Ms. Banks said. “She and I locked eyes, and I’m sure the nonverbal cue to me was ‘don’t say anything, please don’t say anything, I’ll lose my job.’”
“It is the most unsafe workplace in the country,” she added.
Australia’s #MeToo momenthas arrived, late but strong, like a tsunami directed at the country’s political foundation. Six weeks after a former legislative staffer, Brittany Higgins, accused a senior colleague of raping her in the defense minister’s office, thousands of women are standing up to share their stories, march for justice and demand change.
finishing a book about bias, said she encountered the low hum of disrespect at one of her first fund-raisers, where she discovered she was not on the speakers’ list. It was all men.
from 15th to 50th in the world for parliamentary gender diversity. The parliamentary delegations of the conservative Liberal and National parties, which govern with a slim majority, are more than 80 percent male.
Contributing to the fraternity vibe, Canberra is a part-time capital. Votes are often called after 6 p.m., and families are left behind in local districts, since the legislature only sits for 20 weeks a year. When it’s busy, Parliament has often been compared to a gentleman’s club, though to some, it’s more Peter Pan at the pub.
Sarah Hanson-Young, a Greens party senator, said male rivals would often shout across the chamber the names of men she was falsely accused of sleeping with.
“It was like a game these blokes were playing with just the most intense level of scorn,” she told Ms. Ellis for her book “Sex, Lies and Question Time.”
Ms. Hanson-Young sued a Senate colleague, David Leyonhjelm, for defamation after he shouted “stop shagging men” at her on the floor of the chamber in 2018. She recently won a $120,000 judgment against him but endured death threats along the way.
apologized and removed the article. But the story went viral, andMs. Husar said she was forced by her party to step aside and not run again in 2019.
Ms. Ellis called the story about Ms. Husar “weaponized gossip.” She said she had a near miss when a reporter almost wrote about a lie making the rounds, that she and her chief of staff were sleeping with the same man.
Women said the message from their bosses was always clear: Secrets are for insiders, and don’t bother trying to find the truth.
“There has been this sort of ‘do know, don’t tell’ policy,” said Professor Chappell at the University of New South Wales. “The bubble analogy works — everyone who’s in there was keeping the secrets.”
have since come forward with accusations in the news media against the same man. (He was fired after the alleged attack on Ms. Higgins but has not been publicly identified.)
The women’s collective claims broke the stalemate. Women in Parliament and others who had recently left called for accountability. Tens of thousands of women marched all over Australia on March 4 to demand justice, inspired by Ms. Higgins and angered by accusations against Christian Porter, then the attorney general.
Just a day earlier, as news reports emerged of an unidentified cabinet minister accused of sexual assault, Mr. Porter had named himself as the suspect. He publicly denied the allegation — made by a woman who said he raped her when they were teenagers — and refused to resign.
masturbating onto the desks of female ministers. One of them has been fired.
A Liberal lawmaker was accused of harassing two female constituents. He agreed not to run again and apologized, but Mr. Morrison has come under fire for not making him resign.
Many women are also angry at the prime minister for protecting Mr. Porter, whom he recently moved from his role as attorney general into a new cabinet position.
And more women are resisting a return to business as usual.
Last week, Dr. Anne Webster, a new member of Parliament with the conservative National Party, said a male lawmaker had sexually harassed her. That kind of thing might once have been ignored, but she filed a formal complaint with party leadership, prompting the man to apologize.
“That’s what Australians expect of us now,” she said.
“Inch by inch, culture changes,” she added. “All of us are learning; all of us are adjusting to a new platform.”
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For most of the past week, I’ve been interviewing current and former members of Parliament about the mistreatment of women in Australian politics. I’ve spoken mainly to those with direct experience inside the system, and I found myself starting off with the same question: Does what’s happening now feel different?
Everyone — from Tanya Plibersek in Labor, to Dr. Anne Webster of the National Party, to Julia Banks, who gave up her Liberal Party seat in 2019 — responded with the same answer. Yes.
They all told me that, six weeks after Brittany Higgins spoke up with her allegation of rape in the defense minister’s office when she was a staffer in 2019, the dynamic has changed. Women are angry and unified, speaking up in politics and beyond. More of the men who used to brush off complaints of sexism as whining about the always-tough arena of politics have started to see that it’s an uneven playing field, where women compete with extra burdens and threats.
But is that enough to change the system, to make it fair and equal? Maybe not, they said — not yet.
“It feels different in terms of momentum, in terms of moving toward change,” Ms. Banks told me. “But I do worry about the leadership and the lack of accountability. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve seen a lack of accountability before — it can’t be treated like a P.R. issue.”
Dr. Webster, a sociologist who is the National party’s point person on gender issues, compared the level of public outrage to a tsunami, with an impact still unknown.
“The events of the last six weeks, nobody is taking them lying down,” she said. “Everyone is on alert and wondering: Where are we going from here?”
What many of the women found discouraging was the lack, so far, of demonstrable reform. The most obvious solutions I heard proposed by current and former lawmakers, along with political scientists and legal experts, have yet to become a reality, or even a likely possibility.
Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University and a former parliamentary staffer, noted that Parliament still does not have an independent reporting system for workplace complaints, even after Ms. Higgins’s allegations and a slew of additional scandals and accusations against men in government.
An independent reporting system has long been the standard in most big businesses, universities and large institutions of any kind. Over the past few years, Canada and England have updated workplace protocols in their parliaments with a more modern system that makes it easier for victims of bullying or abuse to come forward without repurcussions.
Australia has not. In Parliament and in politics generally, everything still goes through the parties. That creates obvious conflicts of interest and contributes to the kind of situation that Ms. Higgins described, where she said she felt pressured not to report the rape allegation to police because it would have hurt the Liberal Party’s chances in the 2019 election.
Just as importantly if not more so, I was also told, men — not just women — need to do a better job of enforcing reasonable standards of behavior. Men need to redraw the lines of what is acceptable and then enforce the rules with zero tolerance.
“We need to recognize that it wasn’t women who established the culture in Parliament; it wasn’t women who set up the practices,” said Kate Ellis, a Labor Party lawmaker from 2004 to 2019. “It’s been men and it’s those men who need to stand up now and change.”
Louise Chappell, a political scientist at the University of New South Wales who has studied gender in politics since the ’90s, said the current approach tends to involve adding more ministers for women, as the prime minister did earlier this week with his cabinet reshuffle.
The suggestion, she said, is that women are somehow responsible — “It’s still how can we fix up women rather than fix the system,” she said.
She offered up an intriguing alternative.
“Why don’t we have a minister for men behaving better? Why don’t we shift the lens?”
Another suggestion that she said might sound radical but isn’t: Quotas for men. Instead of saying parties need to have 40 or 50 percent women, why not put a limit on how many men can be selected by the parties as candidates?
“We’ve gotten so used to looking at women’s absences rather than men’s privileges and access,” she said. “The first thing we need to do is get men to stop behaving so badly that when women get in there, they just want to flee.”
My article about the chauvinist culture of Australian politics will be out in the next few days.
In the meantime, here are our stories of the week.
SYDNEY, Australia — Seeking to address rising anger over allegations of rape and misogyny against members of his government, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia reshuffled his cabinet on Monday, demoting two ministers tied to separate scandals, but keeping them in senior positions.
Defense Minister Linda Reynolds will become the minister for government services, Mr. Morrison said. Attorney General Christian Porter will give up that role while continuing to serve in the cabinet as the minister for science, industry and technology.
Mr. Morrison also announced a new task force on women’s equality, safety, economic security, health and well-being, while adding several women to the cabinet. They include Michaelia Cash, who will become attorney general, and Karen Andrews, who will become minister for home affairs.
“These changes will shake up what needs to be shaken up,” Mr. Morrison said, adding that having more women in the cabinet would bring “a fresh lens” to the government’s challenges.
Brittany Higgins, accused a more senior colleague of raping her in Parliament House in 2019, and three weeks after Mr. Porter was accused of committing rape when he was a teenager.
Mr. Porter has denied the allegation against him and resisted calls for an independent inquiry. Ms. Reynolds has apologized to Ms. Higgins for speaking with her about the alleged assault in the same room where it was said to have occurred, as well as for calling Ms. Higgins a “lying cow” after she went public with her allegations.
The reassignments are unlikely to tamp down the public outrage that has surged in recent weeks, after years in which complaints about Australia’s brutal culture of misogyny in politics were ignored or actively suppressed by the two major parties.
he had not read it. After the police dropped a criminal case against Mr. Porter, citing insufficient evidence from an incident alleged to have occurred 33 years ago, Mr. Morrison said the attorney general was still fit for the highest legal office in the country, despite the swirl of distrust surrounding him.
On March 4, when thousands of women protested sexual assault and sexism outside Parliament, Mr. Morrison refused to attend the rally. He later declared it a “triumph of democracy” that demonstrators had been able to gather without being “met with bullets” — a comment that only added more fuel to the public anger.
In recent days, Mr. Morrison finally seemed to recognize the severity of the problem his government was facing, but only after videos and photographs surfaced of male Liberal Party staffers masturbating onto the desks of female members of Parliament.
who filed a formal complaint against a colleague last week over a recent case of sexual harassment. “Everyone is on alert now and wondering: Where are we going from here?”
Jo Dyer, a friend of the woman who accused Mr. Porter, said she and many others would continue to push for an independent inquiry into the rape allegation, noting that changing Mr. Porter’s role did not address the larger question of whether he was fit for public office.
defamation claim against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation over its coverage of the rape allegation.
The prime minister said he had retained Mr. Porter in the cabinet because he was “a very capable minister.”
In a statement, Mr. Porter said he did not regret filing the defamation lawsuit, and would give his new portfolio “all the energy and commitment I have.”
MELBOURNE, Australia — Wearing black and holding signs reading “enough is enough,” thousands took to the streets across Australia on Monday to protest violence and discrimination against women, as a reckoning in the country’s halls of power sparked by multiple rape allegations continued to grow.
The marches in at least 40 cities represented an outpouring of anger from women about a problem that has gone unaddressed for too long, said the organizers, who estimated that 110,000 people attended the demonstrations nationwide.
With the next national election potentially coming as early as August, experts say it is something that the conservative government, which has come under stinging criticism for the way it has handled the allegations, ignores at its own peril.
The public anger over violence against women mirrored sentiments on display in London last weekend. There, thousands joined protests over the killing of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who disappeared while walking home at night earlier this month.
allegation that she was raped in Parliament House in 2019 rocked the nation’s halls of power and prompted Monday’s marches, appeared at the Canberra protest. She said that there was a “horrible societal acceptance” of sexual violence in Australia.
“My story was on the front page for the sole reason that it was a painful reminder to women that if it can happen in Parliament House, it can truly happen anywhere,” she said.
saying on Twitter: “We have already come to the front door, now it’s up to the government to cross the threshold and come to us. We will not be meeting behind closed doors.”
settled a defamation complaint and agreed to pay damages to Ms. Higgins after calling her a “lying cow.”
“A government that’s been described as having a ‘women problem’ for several years is now really in trouble with women,” said Sarah Maddison, a politics professor at the University of Melbourne.
“I can’t remember a time I’ve seen and personally experienced the level of distress women are experiencing now,” she said. “I think there’s something here with this level of distress that is producing quite an extraordinary moment in our politics.”
Support for the Liberal Party has been slowly declining among women for years, said Sarah Cameron, a lecturer in politics at the University of Sydney, although it was not enough to stop the party from winning the last federal election in 2019. Dr. Cameron added that the party “ignores this trend at their peril.”
In Sydney, organizers estimated that at least 10,000 people gathered in the central business district.
There, Michael Bradley, the lawyer for a now-deceased woman who had said she was sexually assaulted in 1988 by a man who is currently a member of Parliament, called for reforming the justice system. Earlier this month, Attorney General Christian Porter, 50, confirmed that he was the subject of the allegation.
statement of claim filed by his lawyers said that the article, which did not name Mr. Porter, made defamatory imputations.
In an email statement, the ABC said it “will be defending the action.”
MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia’s defense minister on Friday settled a defamation complaint and agreed to pay damages to a former aide whom she called a “lying cow” after the woman reported being raped in the Parliament building.
The minister, Linda Reynolds, retracted the remark made in private after lawyers for the former aide, Brittany Higgins, sent a letter last week to Ms. Reynolds demanding a public apology for the “demeaning and belittling” comment. The letter described the remark as “defamatory of our client’s good character and unblemished reputation,” according to local news reports.
Last week, Ms. Reynolds issued a formal apology, saying she had never questioned Ms. Higgins’s account. On Friday, in a short public statement, the minister retracted the comment, which, she said, she had “never intended” to make public.
“I did not mean it in the sense that it has been understood,” Ms. Reynold said.
It was not immediately clear now much Ms. Reynolds agreed to pay in damages. In a text message, the minister’s office declined to reveal the amount. Ms. Higgins did not immediately respond to calls or text messages seeking clarification. But she said in a statement that damages beyond the cost of her legal fees would be donated to a charity supporting sexual assault survivors.
formal complaint to the Australian police.
She also said that days after she was assaulted, she had been questioned by Ms. Reynolds in the same room.
Last week, news.com.au reported that the defense minister had referred to Ms. Higgins as a “lying cow” to staff members in her office after Ms. Higgins came forward. Some staff members raised concerns at the time, and Ms. Reynolds had apologized to them, saying it was a “stressful time,” according to news.com.au.
Ms. Higgins said that Ms. Reynolds’s language about her was “further evidence of the toxic workplace culture that occurs behind closed doors in Parliament House.”
In response to the retraction on Friday, Ms. Higgins said in her statement: “I am pleased that the Minister has now withdrawn her comments and I accept her apology to me.” She added, “This has been an immensely challenging period for me and I wish to reiterate that the only reason I have chosen to come forward is to help others.”