The story of this week in Parliament is etched on the faces of the women. Female Members of Parliament and staff have worn this week like a cloak – heavy with the weight of the trauma many of us experience when we receive vile, hate-filled mail, social media comments, sexist remarks and outright death threats. This week has not been easy. A bleak mood hangs over the People’s House.
The week ended with a number of women sharing some of their experiences in Parliament. I read out some of the comments I’ve received, including this message that invoked the darkest hour in human history – the Holocaust:
“I can’t wait till Fraser Anning is our new Fuhrer and you will be sent to the ovens. One day soon we will be at your doorstep. We will take you and your family away to be loaded on a carriage. I can’t wait for the final solution, train carriages packed full of Muslims heading to the OVENS. It will truly be wonderful.”
I called for an end to this kind of treatment for all women, both in and out of Parliament – for the women in Cowan, and in every electorate and every suburb across Australia. I emphasised that all women deserve to feel safe in public, in their homes and in their workplaces.
After my speech, women from the Liberal Party crossed the floor in a show of solidarity. All of them, I know, have received equally vile, equally abhorrent and equally threatening messages. One woman told me that she had received messages but felt that she didn’t face the depth of vileness that others do. To this I say – bullets don’t discriminate in their effect.
Among the women who came to express their solidarity was Nicolle Flint, the Member for Boothby in South Australia. She has recently announced her intention to not contest the next election because of the disgusting and sexist behaviour towards her that she has had to endure from those who do not agree with her politics. I have great empathy for her.
One hundred years ago, Edith Cowan stared down her hecklers and doubters to become the first woman elected to any Parliament when she won the seat of West Perth in the WA Parliament. A century on and a woman in politics has chosen to leave her parliamentary career because of the treatment she is subjected to. Nicolle Flint is not the first and will not be the last to make that decision. How did this happen? How did we get here when Edith’s election presented so much promise? How are we in this situation at this time when successive women have sacrificed so much to pave the way for women in politics?
There are few issues that can rise above politics in this place. Marriage equality was one, but only after a long road littered with bitterness. The safety of women should be something that we can address without resorting to partisan politics.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard many people describe the current events as ‘a moment’ ignited by the bravery of Australian of the Year Grace Tame and ex-Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins speaking out about their experiences. The Women’s March 4 Justice saw tens of thousands of women across Australia join a collective shout for action against sexual assault and harassment. But the question of what comes next hangs in the air. Our greatest fear is that it will be just ‘a moment’ – nothing more than a sidenote written into the margins of the history pages. But history isn’t written yet. We can take action now to ensure that this ‘moment’ is not squandered. That will only happen if women, all women, can come together and rise above party politics with the acknowledgement that what hurts you, also hurts me. As Ged Kearney, the Member for Cooper said, “If it’s happening to one of us, it’s happening to all of us.”
Our daughters and granddaughters will look back on this ‘moment’. They will ask us where we were and what we did. I want to be able to tell future generations that we responded in the spirit of unity and we did not rest until visible and practical changes were made. I hope that’s how history records this moment.
The West Australian, 19 March 2021