In the battle for social change, high profile individual cases – the causes celebres – can play a crucial role in putting an issue into sharp focus.
The allegations of rape made by Brittany Higgins provided such a catalyst for the federal Parliament. Australian of the Year Grace Tame’s fight for victims of sexual assault provided another.
But if women are to live without fear and on equal terms, the outrage generated by these cases must produce broader, structural reforms.
Two long-awaited documents were released this week offering blueprints for what those reforms might be.
One is the government’s response to the [email protected] report on sexual harassment by Kate Jenkins, former Sexual Discrimination Commissioner, unveiled by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday.
The report, commissioned in 2018 at the start of the #MeToo movement was released in March 2019 but it has taken more than a year for the government to respond.
It certainly looks as though the political campaign led by Ms Higgins and Ms Tame helped train Mr Morrison’s mind on an issue which had previously languished amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other priorities.
The [email protected] report proposed a raft of legal changes and spending measures to protect the 39 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men who said they have experienced sexual harassment in the previous five years.
Mr Morrison and new Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said they support all the report’s 55 recommendations in principle but they have only noted some of the key recommendations and stopped short of committing to implementing them.
Among the key measures they’ll implement is a law change including an explicit prohibition on sexual harassment, making it easier to lodge complaints. They will also extend the Sex Discrimination Act to cover actions by judges, politicians and public servants who are currently exempt.
The federal government has also agreed to make sexual harassment a sackable offence under the Fair Work Act.
The Herald welcomes these changes in light of its reporting on cases such as the behaviour of High Court judge Dyson Heydon.
But the government is still examining a key recommendation to impose a positive obligation on employers to take reasonable and proportionate steps to prevent sexual harassment. Ms Jenkins has argued the change is needed to give employers an incentive to raise standards. Without this change it is left solely to the victim to lodge a complaint. Many are unaware of their rights or too scared to speak out against a co-worker or their boss. As a result, only one in five people who are harassed ever complain.
The government says this obligation may not be necessary because it is already implied in other laws and it could add complexity to an already formidable mass of regulation.
The other report this week that should lead to strong action is the NSW Coroner’s findings in the case of John Edwards, who in 2018 shot his two teenage children, Jack and Jennifer, in their north shore home and then himself, in the context of a bitter custody dispute with his wife, Olga. She has since taken her own life.
The case was emblematic of the difficulty women have convincing authorities to take seriously their fears of violence. The coroner found that the crime was preventable and that “Olga, Jack and Jennifer disclosed their experiences of violence and abuse perpetrated by John to multiple agencies, entities, and professionals in the police and within the family law system”.
The NSW government must respond to the coroner’s recommendations, which include mandatory training for the duty constables at police stations on how to respond to complaints of domestic violence and regular audits of what they actually do.
Both state and federal governments should also carefully consider how NSW Police and Firearms Registries can be better informed when such allegations of violence or risk to children are made in Family Court proceedings, as recommended.
Many of these issues are legally complex and could require major behavioural and systematic change but the Herald believes women are tired of being told not to rock the boat.
Mr Morrison this week held the first public meeting of his new taskforce of nine female MPs to help develop better policies on gender equality and lead the implementation of cultural changes. This must be a sustained effort, well beyond July’s proposed two-day summit on women’s safety. The priority must be to change culture in Parliament House and beyond. The momentum that has been built up by brave campaigners must not be allowed to dissipate.
Note from the Editor
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Source: Thanks smh.com