Over the last week we have witnessed the Australian federal cabinet avoid questions directed at how they intended to address the allegations levelled at them for their behaviour following the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins in a ministerial office at Parliament House, which some politicians are calling a ‘cover up.’ Instead of addressing the questions, they have instead perpetuated the age old strategy of victim blaming with woeful comments towards Brittany.
Like most people, I am disgusted at the victim-blaming and cover-up language used by the Australian Liberal party.
Unfortunately, as an Aboriginal woman living in the colony, I’m all too familiar with the victim-blaming culture of the settler colonial state. There are so many layers to the Prime Minister and his colleagues’ behaviours to unpack and many media outlets already have but often without the intersectional lens.
The language and the response to Brittany made me think about the sheer lack of empathy towards her and towards all women, with the PM invoking the all too familiar dehumanising trope of “but what if that was my daughter?” to explain how he was finally able to apply a base level of human empathy to this fellow human being.
And for the PM that probably wasn’t too difficult to imagine Brittany as his daughter – a young, ambitious, high achieving white woman working within the upper echelons of Australian society. That is quite likely a future that the PM imagines for his own children – but I do wonder, how much harder would it have been for him to imagine empathy if Brittany was black?
When we as a society determine the worth of injustice against a perceived or created level of available empathy, we ensure a system that gives justice based not on rules of law but on our ability to see someone we love – to imagine that their suffering is somehow ‘more real’ because we are readily able to put ourselves in their shoes. It enables us to ignore injustice against the ‘other’.
I (along with most women in this country) can empathise with other survivors of abuse as it is not difficult to imagine myself in their shoes – that is the reality of living in a culture like Australia where approximately one in five women has experienced sexual violence and one in two women has experienced sexual harassment. I would of course be more upset or emotional if an injustice was committed against me, or someone I love than someone I don’t know – but my recognition of the need for justice doesn’t increase or decrease with my proximity to another person, or my ability to imagine that I could know them. This disparate way that our leaders look at these issues demonstrates that they are incapable of this empathy, not because they are most often men, but because they cannot comprehend the necessity of justice for those that they cannot relate to or see a loved one in the shoes of.
This country is unsafe for women, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people. Even more so if you are transgender, have no money or are Aboriginal, and the Prime Minister’s comments reinforce the toxic culture that made this happen. It is no surprise that the Prime Minister holds such views when we see that Australian institutions are rotten to the core from a moral and ethical standpoint that includes views of sexual abuse. We have even seen high ranking members of the Liberal Party (former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott) providing George Pell character references despite all of the evidence to the contrary that George Pell was of good character.
As seemingly shocking as it is, we need to temper our shock with the truth of what we know of this place and the power brokers that walk the hallways. Specifically, the successive governments that legislate with apathy to humanity and human rights, placing our most vulnerable in deplorable conditions including refugees who have experienced rape and torture and the continuing violence against Indigenous people in prisons? The wilful abandonment of decency apparent in the policies enacted and the rhetoric used to deploy them shows that this government and in fact, the political institution as a whole, is not capable of the empathy required of leadership.
Little wonder then that what we are seeing played out in Parliament House is happening on a far greater scale in every community in Australia.
I have to admit that I have very little faith in old stale white politicians who can’t envision beyond the carceral system they build to find real justice and accountability.
I’m not surprised, I’m hurt, like most women I’ve spoken to over the last week, we do our best to survive every day without letting the past traumas hurt us. But watching these politicians victim blame and cover-up is a little unwanted reminder of the experiences we are healing from, often compounding the pain. We also feel deep pain for Brittany who is dealing with this with the media spotlight.
It should go without saying but the clear take away from this national discussion is to BELIEVE women and make institutions safe places, not only free from this violence but where we can speak truth to power for justice and accountability. Australia was built on sexual violence, Aboriginal people have been at the frontier of this violence from day one and have long been fighting for accountability so we, once again, stand in support of women being safe, supported and receiving justice.
Notwithstanding our long history in fighting for an end to sexual violence and justice, when Aboriginal people speak up about the injustices that we face as a people, we are treated with heavy contempt by Australian society. We are told that the issue is a narrow one but the country and those that seek to silence us fail to see how related all facets of violence and injustice are and the origins of them in this country. The predatory sexual violence that we see happening, started with colonisers – it started (and continues) against us.
Australia lives in denial everyday on how the nation was built, and this denial makes me fear that Brittany and many others that speak up will not receive the justice they are owed, however I applaud them. Their bravery in making themselves vulnerable in speaking up is an act of courage that all women look to and we owe it to them, we owe it to all who did not have a chance to speak up, to refuse a return to the status quo of toxic misogyny and leadership.
There needs to be a serious foundational shake up before we know what justice looks like for any victims and survivors. I hope that when that shake up happens, that white women don’t forget who started this resistance and leave the rest of us in the dust when this happens.
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