News this week reveals Joe Harman, a judge of the Federal Circuit Court, harassed a junior employee and a former law student. That's what the court's own inquiry found.
But it took time for any action to be taken. When the employee first made a verbal complaint, she was told: "There's not much you can do about it because he's a judge."
And this is how it always goes. I will never forget telling a senior manager that someone he'd hired was well-known among women for sexual violence. When I say well-known, I had a girlfriend he'd assaulted plus there were others who'd shared their experiences. My manager told me unless I had proof, I should stop 'defaming' the man. No interest in pursuing proof himself. He's a smug senior manager now and heaven help any woman who goes to him for assistance.
The terrible result of this young woman's experience with that judge is that she has been on leave from her work and is still unwell. I don't know what's happened to the law student but it can hardly create confidence in the institution. Here we are, in the shadow of the terrible revelations about the behaviour of former High Court justice Dyson Heydon and judges are still behaving badly. The complaints about Heydon were made public in June last year. I can only hope the two young women took courage from those revelations. Certainly the Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court William Alstergren said the court was "ashamed" one of its judges could engage in such conduct and that the behaviour was unacceptable and inexcusable. Alstergren also thanked the women for their "courage and fortitude" in coming forward.
It takes a lot to come forward, especially since we know that mostly, when women complain about sexual harassment, not much happens. Fewer than one in five of those who experience sexual harassment ever seek advice or support; and a hell of a lot less get redress.
The Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said in her Respect@Work report, released last year, that our current reactive model sucks. (Nah, she didn't actually write that but that's what she meant). Employers rely on employees to come forward but they don't. Jenkins wants employers to take charge, to have a positive duty to create safe workplaces. What happens now is that the majority of women are too frightened of losing their jobs if they make a fuss. So bravo to these women and bravo to those who spoke against Heydon.
Which brings me to Julia Banks, the former federal member for Chisholm. After the 2018 leadership spill which saw the end of Malcolm Turnbull's term as prime minister, Scott Morrison's henchmen went wild. But unlike many women in politics, Banks decided to do two things: she would move to become an independent and then she would start to make serious trouble for the men in the party. It was awesome. It was also, by and large, ineffective.
Banks, whose memoir PowerPlay was published this week, is letting the Liberal Party have it. She admits she made mistakes herself, for example, when she told Australians it was easy to live on $40 a day. (Reader, it is nearly impossible to live on that money and Banks claims she made an error. Boy did she ever.) But her biggest mistake was to trust Scott Morrison.
It's not even a matter of being believed. It is a conviction that no one will even listen to them.
When she told the Prime Minister she would not recontest the next election, he asked for 24 hours. In that brief time, he and his staffers engaged in public commentary she felt was designed to present her as unstable. It's a trick of his office we have seen more recently, in his treatment of Brittany Higgins and her partner David Sharaz, although strenuously denied by the office and inquiry-washed by the Kunkel report. It was one of those inquiries run by the people who are being inquired upon. It didn't say the backgrounding happened. It didn't say it didn't happen. Handy for everyone concerned unless you are concerned about the victims. Morrison tried to silence Banks by painting her as wobbly, hysterical and unreliable. It seems to be a pattern with this government.
In her book, Banks tells of a young woman interning in a senior Liberal MP's office (the book doesn't specify he is Liberal so I called Banks to ask). At the beginning of the young woman's internship, the MP had a few colleagues around for a drink. The things they were saying to each other terrified the intern.
"She felt she had to get out, as she felt unsafe from pending sexual assault. She made up some excuse the next day about being sick and never went back. Not surprisingly, she pursued a career outside of politics."
This happens to women every day. They are either silenced by their workplace or silence themselves. They won't complain because they think no one will take their side. It's not even a matter of being believed. It is a conviction that no one will even listen to them. No one will listen. And so it is better to up stakes and leave.
Right now, Kate Jenkins is conducting an independent review to ensure "all Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful and that our national Parliament reflects best practice in the prevention and handling of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault". Good luck to Jenkins and to all who have decided to come forward to speak to her. An interim report, more of a logistical update, is due at the end of this month but the real deal will be out at the end of the year. Banks has chosen to submit her entire book as part of her submission.
It is hard, very hard, for me to be optimistic about the report. How pathetic was it when the government's response to Respect@Work took more than a year? How embarrassing that it would only note most of the recommendations? How can it survive as support for the Coalition among women shrivels?
And now we discover the Fair Work Commission won't get any extra funding, despite fears it will be overwhelmed with claims because of the Morrison government's new anti-sexual harassamment orders.
But I'm trying to be positive. Can this government pull itself together and act on a report which is bound to be tough? After its horror year, we can only hope it will take charge and make change. Otherwise, there may be plenty more horrifying revelations to come. I'm imagining that the more women who complain, the more women will come forward; and that will turn out badly for harassers and their enablers everywhere.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.