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On Women: 2021 the year that was.

This is the introduction by Kath Naish to our Town Hall on Women's Safety | Equality | Power and Respect given on Thursday 25 November 2021. I wanted to reflect on the year that was. Our theme is “respect” and it has certainly been a big year for gender, politics, women’s safety, equality and power.

In January, Grace Tame, a sexual assault survivor and advocate for survivors, was named Australian of the Year. Now, we could easily spend the whole evening talking about Grace and the things that she has achieved this year. Suffice to say that she is an inspiration and is showing exemplary leadership on the national stage.

In February, the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022was released. Commonly known as the “National Plan”, the document is a 12 year plan to reduce violence against women by co-ordinating the work being done by all Australian Governments via 4 three-year Action Plans.

The day after the Plan was released, a young Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins spoke out publicly about a rape allegation against a fellow staffer who is now awaiting trial. Her allegations were followed by name calling, gas-lighting, obfuscation and backgrounding by senior members of the government.

Around the same time, Wentworth local, Chanel Contos posted an Instagram poll asking young women living in Sydney if they had stories of being sexually assaulted while a school student. She has now received over 6,700 testimonies and the poll evolved into a petition calling for earlier and better sex education in schools with over 44,000 signatures. Chanel has helped shine a light on the need for better consent education in Australia and has inspired major changes in schools across the country.

In March, the Attorney General of Australia, Christian Porter, outed himself as the Government MP at the centre of an allegation of rape by a woman who had taken her own life the previous year. Mr Porter denied the allegation and attempted to sue the ABC for defamation over the story.

Stories also emerged of sexualised bullying and harassment behaviour by Liberal Party and Labor Party staffers working within the Parliament.

These events prompted the March 4 Justice which erupted across Australia with thousands marching on Parliament House in Canberra demanding action to transform attitudes towards women in their homes, communities, and workplaces. Some of us in the room tonight were there. The Prime Minister of Australia failed to meet the protesters but declared from inside the Parliament that it was a “triumph of democracy” that campaigners for women’s justice were able to rally outside Parliament House in Canberra and in other cities across Australia without being “met with bullets”.

Outside, Brittany Higgins spoke to the crowds stating that if democratically elected officials weren’t committed to dealing with alleged abuses of power in their own offices, “what confidence can the women of Australia have that they will be proactive in addressing this issue in the broader community?”

Following the March 4 Justice, the Australian Human Rights Commission commenced a Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces with the aim of ensuring that the national Parliament reflects best practice in the prevention and response to bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault. That report is due out shortly.

The Morrison government also provided a limited response to the Sex Commissioner’s 2020 Respect at Work Report which was the product of the landmark National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces conducted by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins and had been handed to the government several months earlier.

In April, a survey was undertaken in the Attorney-General’s Department, previously led by Christian Porter, which showed that despite working in the division responsible for Australia’s sexual harassment laws, 40% of staff said they did not report harassment with only one in 10 reporting.

In May Mr Morrison announced a cabinet reshuffle naming Senator Marise Payne as the “Minister for Women” and Amanda Stoker as the Assistant Minister for Women within a new “Women’s Safety Ministry”. They also convened a Women’s Safety Summit which took place in September. Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO, and Professor Marcia Langton called out the failures to protect First Nations women and called for a dedicated, self-determined stand-alone First Nations National Safety Plan to end violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Grace Tame and Brittney Higgins were critical of the Women’s Safety Summit which they characterised as a PR event.

It is against this background that we are witnessing the rise and rise of women stepping up into leadership roles, on their terms, as strong independents, with more female independent candidates being announced each month.

So, that’s just a very brief summary of some of the events of this year. We can’t possibly do justice to all of the women and our allies who have been speaking out, working hard and collaborating together to drive positive change, but what we want to do this evening is focus on some of the very important political and social activities which are currently taking place and look at what we can all, as members of our communities, do to help consign some of these appalling behaviours to history.

Watch the Video of our Town Hall here

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