Why we need national laws to protect women, and why it’s everyone’s job to demand them

Brittany Higgins women safety at work

Brittany Higgins after meeting the Prime Minister in 2021. Source: AAP/Dean Lewins.

BB many of us assumed working in Parliament would have to be one of the safest places in the country. Before Brittany. When I say “many of us”, I mean women. Men already know what happens in Parliament House.

Now we know how bad it is. Turns out crimes occur where laws get made. Not that we will ever know how bad it really is. We saw six women receive an apology in Parliament House on Tuesday, but we know how few women actually report sexual violence. You do the math; that gallery should have been packed.

What does that say for the other workplaces? If the place of the highest standards can’t keep them, those without such protections surely don’t keep them.

There were two important outcomes after Brittany Higgins said she was sexually assaulted in her workplace. One, women marched for justice. Two, the delivery of a report by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins on the parliamentary workplace. 

That report came warm on the heels of Jenkins’s Respect@Work report, which made 55 recommendations. It’s been two years and we have barely seen a shift despite the Prime Minister’s claims that this is a government for all Australians. The most important recommendation in Jenkins’ report, that of positive duty, is still left to the states and territories.

Women are not wholly safe at work, they are not even half safe. Of the 12 legislative changes recommended, only six have become law. 

We need national laws to protect women

“I was raped on a couch in what I thought was the safest and most secure building in Australia,” Higgins began, when delivering her speech at the National Press Club this week. 

“In a workplace that has a police and security presence 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Parliament of Australia is safe — it is secure — except if you’re a woman. If what happened to me can happen there, it can happen anywhere. And it does. It happens to women everywhere.”

Higgins’ words hit home for me, because when I heard her say something very similar Parliament House lawn almost 12 months ago, I hand-on-heart thought this would change the nature of workplaces Australia-wide. How could it not?

At the time, my peers and I discussed how corporate Australia was “better than” Parliament House. But that doesn’t make them good, or of a standard that has stopped this happening. There’s much further to go.

Every workplace culture is different, and this means different protections against violence are in place depending on where you work. Navigating the process of being safe every time you start a new job is ridiculous. We need national laws that protect us, regardless of your current company.

Violence against women is a workplace issue, and we need to talk about it in the workplace.

We deserve respect at work, whether the recommendations by Respect@Work are enacted or not. And the recommendations from the Jenkins report into the parliamentary workplace needs to be properly implemented. I vote for Brittany Higgins to be its auditor.

There was one other important consequence of Brittany Higgins’s revelations: the Prime Minister’s office brief against both Higgins and her partner David Sharaz. Why does that matter? That, my friends, is just one more form of assault against women. 

March4Justice

Sarah Moran was one of many women who marched for justice in March 2021. Source: supplied.

A conversation for everyone

On Wedneday, I took a photo of the list of journalists who wanted to ask questions at the National Press Club. There was only one man. But in some respects, that also shows a shift. Bureau chiefs in Canberra are no longer all men: Katharine Murphy of The Guardian, Karen Barlow of Australian Community Media, Lanai Scarr of The West Australian, Anna Henderson of SBS, Michelle Grattan of The Conversation. And let’s not forget the ABC’s Laura Tingle. 

Sometimes in my work I know men are waiting to be invited into the conversation. I get it: when the gender imbalance in the room is not skewed your way, it’s unclear if you have permission to get involved in the conversation. I can assure you that you don’t need to be a lifelong member of “Male Champions of Change” wielding your badge before you can speak.

Men: if you need permission, I am here to give it to you.

If you are a bloke, your voice is needed here more than ever before. Violence against women and children, whether it be in the workplace, the home or anywhere in between, affects everyone. Even if you think about it *just* from a financial point of view, KPMG’s 2016 report estimated the total cost of violence against women and children at $22 billion. And it’s not getting any cheaper.

If you’d like a starting point to using your voice, please add your name to a Submission to the Draft National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2032.

You can literally sign your name next to Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, and demand specific targets and a clear path to achieving them, together with a credible accountability mechanism for the National Plan.

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