We're all someone's daughter, living in an age of parliamentary sexual assault

This week, on Monday 22 March, when news broke that a jury had found former NRL football star – and one-time high profile Australian Christian – Jarryd Hayne guilty of sexual assault, my Gen Z daughter texted me in shock.

“Jarryd Hayne found guilty of sexual assault!! I didn’t know men could actually be found guilty of sexual crimes they committed,” she told me.

That evening – despite her being 21-years-old and in no need of my instruction – I went into what I call ‘full Christian mum mode’. I told her that while we celebrate the triumph of justice, we don’t celebrate the downfall of others.

I didn’t want to argue Hayne’s guilt or innocence – neither do I want to do that here – and I stumbled over my words, trying to uphold the victim and believe her story, and also trying to acknowledge the utter tragedy of the situation for all involved, including Hayne’s wife and daughter.

My daughter looked past my verbal ineptitude to my intent and graciously acknowledged the point I was making. A few moments after she left the room, my husband spoke to me gently.

“I don’t think she was celebrating it,” he told me. “She was genuinely shocked. She hasn’t seen men held accountable for sexual assault before. She didn’t believe it really happens.”

“She hasn’t seen men held accountable for sexual assault before. She didn’t believe it really happens.”

Three days later, I am still thinking about how my daughter was shocked to see Australia’s justice system deliver a sexual assault conviction and wondering how we could have possibly ended up here. I tracked back through recent weeks – a time when daughters have become a hot-button topic in Australia.

It was a little less than six weeks ago, on February 15, when news broke that coalition staffer Brittany Higgins’ had allegedly been raped by another coalition staffer. The rape was alleged to have occurred around 2am on March 23, 2019 in the offices of Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds.

The public learned that soon after the alleged event, several parliamentary departments and/or their staffers learned some part of its occurrence – some of the ‘security breach’ that put Higgins and her alleged rapist in the room and some of the alleged rape itself – along with the Australian Federal Police. The alleged rapist had been fired on April 1, the same day Higgins had been called to a meeting in the same office the incident was alleged to have taken place. Higgins told the media that, after talking to her managers and the police, she had decided not to continue with the complaint because she felt that doing so would put her job in jeopardy.

During Question Time on February 16, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had only learned of the rape allegation on the day the news broke.

“My government takes all such matters and all matters of workplace safety very, very seriously,” he said. “Reports today are deeply distressing. This matter is under consideration by police.”

In the following days, two more women came forward, with similar allegations about the same man. A fourth alleged the same man “stroked her thigh” while they were at a bar in Canberra in 2017.

By February 18, five weeks ago, continued questions about how much the PM knew before media reports – along with criticism over how the government had handled the allegations – had reached a fever pitch.

“Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, you have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” – Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Mr Morrison fronted the press. He apologised to Brittany Higgins and conceded the government had mishandled its response, announcing a review into workplace culture at Parliament House.

Then the PM spoke about his own daughters.

“[My wife] Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, you have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” he told reporters. “Jenny has a way of clarifying things. Always has. And so, as I’ve reflected on that overnight and listened to Brittany and what she had to say.”

The PM said he wanted to ensure “any young woman working in this place is as safe as possible, as I would want for my own daughters”.

Morrison’s comments were critiqued by Australians asking why the Prime Minister would need to think of his own daughters, in order to realise that Higgins’ allegations warranted a sensitive response and the robust investigation of her claims.

A viral meme flooded social media:

That same day, former Sydney Kambala girls’ school student Chanel Contos launched a petition aimed at drawing attention to how frequently girls experience sexual assault from all-boys’ school students in Sydney. It quickly gained signatures and testimonies.

Two days later, weekend news readers in Australia were shocked to read the testimonies of girl after girl – some as young as 13 years old – who anonymously detailed their experiences of sexual assault by high school students. Many claim these students attend some of Sydney’s most prestigious boys schools.

“Some of Sydney’s private boys schools almost encourage and certainly tolerate misogyny,” – Kambala mother

Horrified parents and concerned teachers considered their own role in ensuring their daughters were kept safe.

“One Kambala mother, wary of parents who tolerate drugs and sex among teenagers, said she regarded some underage parties as dangerous to her daughters’ safety” reported the Australian Financial Review.

“Some of Sydney’s private boys schools almost encourage and certainly tolerate misogyny,” she said. “Boys don’t see girls in leadership positions or besting them academically. They only see them at parties.”

To date, the petition has gained more than 3718 testimonies of alleged sexual assault and 38,712 signatures, sparking a national conversation about the need for consent education, the role of porn in shaping young people’s sexual behaviour, and how law enforcement can address the issue more effectively.

My daughter has signed the petition and read the testimonies. Nothing she has read has shocked her.

Four weeks ago, on February 26, the ABC reported rumours circulating in “the Canberra Bubble” for some time – the first mainstream news outlet to do so. A letter had reportedly been received by several MPs, detailing a historic rape allegation against a senior cabinet member. The letter was said to contain a thorough statement made by a now deceased woman – who had taken her own life in June at aged 49 – who alleged the man raped her when she was 16.

The alleged rapist’s name circulated on social media in the following days. Australians learned that while the alleged victim did speak to the police, she did not make a formal report.

On March 1, the Prime Minister revealed he had spoken to the cabinet minister alleged to have raped the woman who gave an “absolute rejection” of the claims.

Asked to instigate an inquiry into the matter by the woman’s friends and lawyer, he declined saying, “We can’t have a situation where the mere making of an allegation, and that being publicised through the media, is grounds for governments to stand people down.”

“We have a rule of law in this country and it’s appropriate that these things were referred to the federal police – they have been. They’re the people who are competent and authorised to deal with issues of this sensitivity and this seriousness,” he said.

On March 2, New South Wales police confirmed they could not progress with a criminal investigation against the woman’s alleged rapist based on the information they currently had.

“You did not deserve the frenzied politicisation of the circumstances of your daughter’s death of the past week” – Attorney General Christian Porter

Just over three weeks ago, on March 3, Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter called a media conference to confirm social media reports that he was the cabinet minister accused of rape.

An emotional Porter emphatically denied raping the woman in 1988, when he was 17 during a debating competition at Sydney University.

“I just wanted to start by saying something to the parents who are grieving for the loss of their adult daughter. I only knew your daughter for the briefest periods, at debating competitions when we were teenagers about 33 years ago. I was 17 years old and I think that she was 16 years old,” he said. “And in losing that person, your daughter, you have suffered a terrible loss, and you did not deserve the frenzied politicisation of the circumstances of your daughter’s death of the past week, and I have thought long and hard about the implications for you of what I feel that I need to say today.”

“I hope that whatever else happens, from this point, that you will understand that in saying today that the things that are being claimed to have happened did not happen, that I do not mean to impose anything more upon your grief,” he said. “But I hope that you will also understand, that because what is being alleged did not happen, I must say so publicly.”

Porter announced that he was taking mental health leave for the rest of March.

The Australian reported that Defence Minister Linda Reynolds had called Higgins a “lying cow” to her staff, when the story of her alleged rape broke on the same day.

Higgins then sued her former boss for defamation, attaining a confidential settlement that she said she would donate to organisations that help victims of sexual assault.

Minister Reynolds, who was already on medical leave, announced she would be extending it.

At the same time, in the UK, the hunt was on for 33-year-old British woman Sarah Everard, who had gone missing when walking home through South London’s Clapham Common on March 4.

On March 8 it was International Women’s Day.

At midnight on March 9, London’s Metropolitan Police announced they had arrested a serving police officer in Kent, in connection with Everard’s disappearance.

Then, two weeks and one day ago, on March 10, her remains were found in a builder’s bag in woodland near Ashford, 120 kilometres south-east of London, her identity confirmed by dental records.

Women across the world discussed on how Everard had done the same things they do to remain safe – walking at a busy time, talking to her boyfriend on the phone for part of the trip. “It could have been any one of us,” they said.

Just over one week ago, on March 15, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Australia in ‘March 4 Justice’ rallies in response to the shocking allegations coming out of parliament. #EnoughIsEnough” becomes the protest’s rallying call.

Brittany Higgins delivered a powerful and emotional address to protesters gathered in Canberra on the lawn of Parliament House. Christian Porter’s ex-wife Lucy Gunn reportedly attended a rally in Perth.

The Prime Minister and Marise Payne, the Minister for Women, were asked to address the gathering of protesters outside Parliament House. They declined, extending an invitation for march organisers to instead meet with them privately inside Parliament House.

“This is a vibrant liberal democracy,” the PM said during Question Time. “Not far from here, such marches – even now – are being met with bullets but not here in this country. This is a triumph of democracy when we see these things take place.”

Condemnation of his remarks were swift and brutal.

“It was a poor choice of words but also, any references to such violence … was just completely inappropriate and saddening,” said Natasha Stott Despoja, Australia’s member of a UN committee about the discrimination against women.

My own daughter was also inspired by the sight of the protests on March 15, but not because she viewed it as evidence of Australia’s thriving democracy. Instead, the sight of women outraged in unity, provided her with the tiniest glimmer of hope for change – a hope she was desperately lacking.

“I’ve been holding off posting about Sarah Everard,” she posted on her Instagram story.

“I, like many other women, was not shocked. This is my life, really. Avoid being kidnapped. Avoid putting myself in situations where I could potentially be raped (like walking home alone, catching public transport after dark, wearing short skirts when on my own, going to the bathroom alone when I’m out, being alone with male colleagues, acquaintances or peers)” she wrote.

“I learned very early on to be afraid of boys. When I was in kindy another kindy boy touched me inappropriately. It made me feel sick and I knew it was wrong but the damage was done. I learned that when you’re a girl, boys will try to touch you, kiss you, talk to you and stare at you without you wanting it at all. If you could avoid it, you were safe. If you couldn’t, that was that.

“My life is full of stories like this. Being cat-called from nine-years-old onwards. Being sent dick pics by my male friends non-consensually. Being cornered at my friend’s 13th by her 18-year-old brother’s friend and told how much he wanted to kiss me. Wondering if the men in my family were going to hurt me when it was just me and them in the car (they didn’t and never gave me any reason to think that. But it took me a long time to stop being scared.)

“And the reality is, I’ve made it to my twenties relatively unscathed. My stories are nothing compared to those of my female friends and family members. Nothing compared to those of Sarah Everard or Eurydice Dixon, or Brittany Higgins, or Christine Blasey Ford.

“I guess all this could be shocking for the people that didn’t grow up with a female body. But for those of us who did, it’s not. It’s life.

“This is not to say, of course, that all men are sexual abusers. And all women are sexual abuse survivors. I am so grateful to the men around me who have always made me feel safe, valued and more than just a body.

“It is to say, though, that we must all be part of the solution. We must listen to women and believe them. Men, talk to your male friends. Be active bystanders. If you have a problem with sexual violence, seek help.”

“I’m sure I speak for many women when I say that it never occurred to me that there could be a solution. That I could one day feel safe in my body. The possibility is a relief.”

Reading her post brought up some awful memories for me as her mother – with a generous side order of helplessness.

I remembered calling her school to report the kindergarten boy who had abused her, knowing full well that no kindergarten-aged boy does that without having been exposed to some measure of horror himself. Meeting with her teacher and principal.

I remembered walking a hundred metres up our semi-rural street to her school bus stop twice-daily, so she felt safe from cat-calling drivers as she walked home.

I thought about how, even now, on the hottest of summer days, she changes out of shorts or a skirt into something that covers more of her body, before she leaves the for train station or local shops.

Is it any wonder my daughter understands the world to be one where women are always unsafe? Where the mere possibility of maybe one day feeling safe in her body is a relief?

How could I possibly critique her for being so shocked by the announcement of Hayne’s conviction, given the last six weeks? Given her experiences from the age of six?

How could I possibly critique her for being so shocked by the announcement of Hayne’s conviction, given the last six weeks? Given her experiences from the age of six?

The Prime Minister again fronted the media two days ago to address the latest instalment of sexual depravity in our nation’s capital which had broken on the previous evening’s news: male Coalition staffers sharing videos of themselves masturbating on the desks of their female MP bosses.

“I’m shocked, and I’m disgusted. It is shameful. It is just absolutely shameful,” he said. “I was completely stunned, as I have been on more than one occasion over the course of this last month.”

“We must get this house in order… We must put the politics aside on these things and we must recognise this problem, acknowledge it, and we must fix it. This has been a very traumatic month,” the Prime Minister said. “It began with Brittany Higgins and her revelations of what took place in this very building. I remember that day very well. I was equally shocked and stunned at receiving that news also.”

The Prime Minister described a kind of awakening that had happened in Australia during the period – acknowledging that women had always known.

“We have been talking about it in this place for a month, they have been living with it for their entire lives … so as much as it has been a topic of discussion here, and around the country specifically in relation to these disgraceful acts, it is something that has been the lived experience of Australian women for a very long time, and I welcome the spotlight that has now been placed on this.”

After almost five weeks of being criticised for his comments that Jenny Morrison had told him to imagine Brittany Higgins was one of his own daughters, Morrison took the issue of his family head on. He acknowledged that “people might like the fact that I discuss these with my family, they’re the closest people in my world to me. That’s how I deal with things, I always have”, saying “No offence was intended by me by saying that I discuss these issues with my wife.”

“I have the deepest of vested interests. Criticise me if you like for speaking about my daughters, but they are the centre of my life. My wife is the centre of my life. My mother, my widowed mother, is the centre of my life. They motivate me every day on this issue,” Morrison teared up. “They have motivated me my entire life. They have taught me the values and the faith has sustained me every single day in this job, which is why I am here. I owe them everything. And to them, I say to you girls, I will not let you down.”

Personally, I appreciated the PM’s passion. Violence against women and sexism are issues that are worthy of a good passionate political speech and a tear. Better late than never, I thought.

But like many other women, the events of the five weeks preceding his speech had left me sceptical about whether his commitment was to addressing the problem or stopping the political fallout.

The media in the room were also not about to let Mr Morrison off the hook just because he had delivered a rousing, Pentecostal-styled speech about “getting his house in order”.

“This has been a terribly difficult month.” – Prime Minster Scott Morrison

“Prime Minister, two things: There will be women listening on to your comments this morning wondering why it took you a month to get to their lived reality, that they started this on the day where Brittany Higgins came forward. So can you explain why it took you a month to get to this position?” one asked.

He gave a wiser answer to the reporter’s question than the statements he made in late February.

“This has been a terribly difficult month. I was shocked and appalled when I learnt of the situation involving Brittany Higgins. And I have been shocked and appalled by all the other matters that have come forward since,” he said. “We moved immediately to start addressing issues around that particular case, but this is far bigger than that.”

Another journalist asked about the PM’s decision not to address women who rallied on Parliament house’s lawns last week, instead inviting organisers to meet him inside parliament house privately: “The statements you have made today, Prime Minister, is this the speech you should have given in front of the women who rallied in front of Parliament last Monday?”

“It is not my habit, as you know, to go out to rallies and things like that, that come to Parliament House. In the course of my program I am very happy to provide an opportunity for people who come in that way and meet with me,” he said. “I acknowledge that there has been people that haven’t been happy with how I have responded in every single way to the course of this over the course of the last month. I acknowledge that absolutely. And I am setting about to put that right,” he said.

The final question, returned the PM to the subject of his daughters:

“You started by talking about your daughters, after the last month, what would you tell them about a life of public service? What pitch would you make to any young girl in Australia now about why they would want to be in federal politics?”

“Because they want things to be better, and that they have something to contribute to that,” the PM responded. “I believe in my girls, I believe in all the women of Australia, thank you very much,” he said and exited the room.

Australian women are, as the iconic John Farnham sang so eloquently, “all someone’s daughter”. And we all want a country where all women are safe.

But while we live in a country where the alleged rape of a parliamentary staffer by another parliamentary staffer is only confronted one year later because the media has a hold of it… well, we are a long way from Australian being a country where our women are safe.

While we have a Prime Minister who, when the country’s Attorney General is accused of rape and the alleged victim’s suicide means there is not enough evidence for the police to pursue a criminal case, chooses not to use the possible options for an investigation that are available, we are a long way from Australian being a country where our women are safe.

While thousands of schoolgirls have experienced rape and sexual assault by their male peers, and tomorrow’s male politicians are the parliamentary staffers of today who are jerking off on female MPs’ desks, we are so, so far from being a country where our women are safe that it’s hard to even imagine one.

But a jury found one guy guilty of sexual assault this week. And thousands of women rallied across the country last week to say they want it to be better for all women.

So, today, I’m sticking with my daughter, clinging to the glimmer of hope of that “one day” there’s a possibility Australian might be a country where our women are safe.