“I was abused by a family member, groomed from the age of eight. It’s affected my whole life and the decisions I have made. It’s a common story you hear from anybody in that situation and it’s a good example of why we need to have a national conversation about these things. It is such a prevalent issue.”
The speed with which Janine Hendry’s spontaneous tweet – how many women would you need to form a circle surrounding Parliament House? – turned into a 100,000-person national rally is a pretty good clue. It took only two weeks. It was not a celebrity-led event; it had no organisational backing, no money.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity now for real change,” says Archer. “You’ve got your head in the sand if you can’t see the momentum behind this push for justice, for change, for people to have their voices heard.”
But it’s the policy of the government to put its head in the sand. The leadership is trying to move on to its preferred topics, its preferred political battlegrounds of the economy, the vaccination program, national security.
Scott Morrison judged at the outset that the demand for justice for women was just a passing enthusiasm. That was a month ago. He was wrong. He’s hated every moment of the campaign, the news, the noise. Two of his cabinet ministers are on leave, the government has lost ground in the polls, it’s lost control of the political agenda.
The government has bungled badly and just wants the whole “women problem” to disappear, as if 52 per cent of the electorate is some special-interest clique that can be relegated with a couple of standard crisis-management techniques and talking points dictated by political backroom apparatchiks with all the life experience of an introverted monk in a cloistered order.
Morrison declined the invitation to join the rally. Instead, he offered to meet three or four delegates in his office. The organisers declined: “Given that so many have come to the steps of Parliament to make their voices heard, the question is, why can’t the Prime Minister take the last few steps through the front door and hear them directly?”
In the event, at least 15 Coalition MPs and senators were prepared to venture outside their high-security hideout to meet their fellow citizens. Should Morrison have taken those last few steps? Bridget Archer says it’s hard for her to know whether it would have been helpful.
“I think what would be good now is to follow up,” she says. “We have to keep the momentum or it will be lost.”
Another Liberal backbencher, Russell Broadbent, has written to Morrison proposing a national summit of women’s groups to discuss the subject.
Archer supports this idea. “I don’t think the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader is to be expected to magically fix it all. But we can’t point to the record amount we are investing in health or in domestic violence, even though it’s true, because it’s not enough. It doesn’t matter how much you’re tipping in if the bucket has a hole in it. We’ve done that with sexual violence and it’s got worse.
“Something is not working. The missing piece is cultural change, and that is a structural issue. We can’t presume to know it all. You have to listen. Something along the lines of a national summit would be a really good start, and then build on that.”
It would need to be bipartisan if it was to work. Archer says she is consulting women’s groups about such an idea. “In the next couple of days I will certainly be putting my views to the Prime Minister.”
She’ll be up against the conventional political playbook for such inconveniences. And she knows it. She summarises accurately the political play to date: “The Labor Party has been saying for a few weeks that the Liberals have a problem with women. Now the Liberal party has been saying you, Labor, don’t have the moral high ground,” which has been one of the reasons that the Prime Minister’s office has been cheerleading the Liberals’ Nicolle Flint as she repeatedly accuses Labor of tacitly endorsing a sexist hate campaign against her at the 2019 election.
“This week is the closing of the political loop on that – yes, both sides are guilty of mistreating women,” Archer says. “We are missing the point. The whole country has a problem of culture, of increased levels of violence and disrespect against women.”
Chanel Contos’s petition, with thousands of testimonials of current and former schoolgirls detailing sexual assault, is one indicator.
Another is the NSW Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller’s expression of frustration this week with the annual 15,000 reports of sexual assault: “Men continue to get away with it – less than 2 per cent of the reports lead to guilty verdicts in court.” His proposal for an app as a way of registering sexual consent may be impractical, but it was a genuine effort to find new ways to deal with an intractable problem.
Closing the loop on the political play – the two major parties inflicting damage on each other – “is not the end of the story and it isn’t even the beginning”, says Archer.
The other element of the standard playbook is the “look busy” trick. The government is busy with urgent priorities just now. Archer’s response: “The Australian people rightly expect their government to walk and chew gum at the same time. Yes, there is a vaccine rollout, and there is an economic recovery plan. You know what? This is an equally important issue of national significance. What are you saying if you say other things are more important? That’s the problem. That’s exactly the problem.”
The politics is the process of strangling the humanity. The political week started with the rally demanding attention for the women of Australia; it ended with a parade of politicians talking about themselves and each other. “We have to turn our gaze away from ourselves and back onto the people of Australia,” Archer urges.
If the national interest isn’t compelling enough, there’s also a political incentive. The Coalition once enjoyed an enormous lead over Labor in its share of women’s votes. In 1967 the Coalition had an advantage of 9 per cent over Labor, as the ANU’s Australian Electoral Study shows.
“That’s been declining consistently and went to nothing towards the end of the Howard period,” says the ANU’s Ian McAllister. Women were exactly divided between the main parties in their support for a while.
The long-term trend of women to be less conservative and more progressive is witnessed across much of the Western world, for three reasons, McAllister explains: a growing proportion of women went into higher education; likewise they went into the work force; and women, once more religious then men, lost that tendency.
Under Julia Gillard, Labor won a surge of women voters, its advantage 7 per cent for a while. Most of that has gone, but Labor still held a 2 per cent edge over the government among women at the 2019 election.
“All of which suggests that factors such as leadership and the handling of gender issues in Parliament may well have an influence on voting preference,” McAllister concludes.
In other words, if it’s not too late, the powerful current demanding justice for women today isn’t necessarily just a danger to be dodged; it can be intelligently approached and humanely handled, a political asset to be salvaged.
“The women and the men of Australia are telling us that the time is now and they are looking for leadership,” says Bridget Archer.
Spoken like a true leader.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.