Australian PM condemned for ‘shocking’ response to sexual abuse claims
Two prominent advocates for sexual abuse survivors pilloried Australia’s prime minister Wednesday, decrying “weasel words” and a response to widespread abuse that had not “measured up”.
Former government aide Brittany Higgins — whose allegation she was raped by a colleague, in parliament, sparked national protests — said “too little has changed” since she went public a year ago.
In a widely watched speech, Higgins was sorrowful and withering about the actions of a conservative government she once served.
Higgins said Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response, which invoked his own daughters and wife, had been “shocking and at times, admittedly, a bit offensive”.
“I didn’t want his sympathy as a father. I wanted him to use his power as prime minister,” she said.
“But his words wouldn’t matter if his actions had measured up.”
Higgins said the national conversation about ending abuse, harassment and assault had not progressed beyond “trading off offensive, tone-deaf statements for a convoluted mix of appeasing weasel-words”.
Higgins was joined in her address by child sexual abuse survivor Grace Tame, the 2021 “Australian of the Year”, who also took aim at the prime minister’s leadership over the past year.
“It rots from the top,” Tame said.
“Unless our leaders take full responsibility for their own failings, abuse culture will continue to thrive inside parliament, setting a corrupt standard for the rest of the nation.”
The plight of both women had fuelled national debate and soul searching in Australia, as well as multiple government investigations.
One of those, the 450-page Jenkins Review, found that one in three people currently working in parliament and other federal government workplaces have experienced sexual harassment while there.
Tame piled further pressure on the government during her speech by alleging she was asked not to publicly criticise the prime minister.
She recalled a “threatening phone call from a senior member of a government-funded organisation asking for my word that I wouldn’t say anything damning about the prime minister” at a recent award ceremony.
Tame said the caller told her the prime minister “would have a fear… with an election coming soon”.
Australia’s next federal election must be held by mid-May.
Minister for families Anne Ruston said the government was looking into Tame’s claim, adding that, if true, such a warning would be “completely unacceptable”.
Morrison did not attend Higgins and Tame’s address, citing other commitments, but several members of his government including Ruston were in the audience.
Speaking in parliament later Wednesday, Morrison was asked about the progress his government had made on the issue of women’s safety.
He cited an upcoming 10-year plan for women’s safety, among other measures.
Higgins said the plan’s “aims are so lofty and vague that it’s impossible to disagree with and equally difficult to examine”.
Tame called for more funding for consent training in schools. She said between 2020 and 2022, the government “planned to spend 11 cents per student per year on prevention education”.
Both women ruled out any plans to run for political office.