By KIERAN FINNANE
Canberra’s Parliament House as a workplace does not often figure in Alice Springs conversations, but in the very public one held yesterday on the courthouse lawns it was excoriated for failing by a long way to meet community expectations.
Hundreds of local women supported by some men – a crowd of some three hundred – joined the many tens of thousands around the country, under the banner of March4Justice.
The march was called to protest the federal government’s inadequate response to recent reports of sexual assaults and workplace harassment in the Parliament and associated with political figures.
“They have displayed they are completely incompetent in terms of policies and procedures to take care of people,” said Catherine Satour to whoops of approval and applause from the crowd.
A Pertame Southern Arrernte woman and Alice Springs Town Councillor, she asked, “What hope do we have as a community around the country if they can’t even get it right in Parliament House?”
She described the “trainwreck” of their handling of complaints and allegations and asked, “What message does that send to other victims, to predators, to community, to workers in the front line looking after victims?”
She urged the crowd to support women in leadership, “whether you like what they say or not”, as having women in leadership is “a big part of the puzzle to address these complex issues.”
Anke Nagel is a mother, a migration agent now working with Ward Keller, and a feminist from way back – “raised that way by her mother.”
The events in Canberra of the past weeks had set her reading, discovering with shock that right now Members of Parliament are not technically included in the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984. Zali Steggall, the independent MP who unseated former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, that very day put up a Private Member’s Bill about this, she told the crowd to applause.
The list of workplace deficits went on: The Australian Parliament also does not have a human resources department; MPs are the employer, with the sole power to hire or fire, and the latter can be done without a reason; if a staffer makes a sexual misconduct complaint or any complaint, there’s no independent process; the regular police have no jurisdiction in parliament house, only the AFP has (police are subject to the authority of the House Speaker and Senate President ); but the AFP has no power to investigate or deal with alleged sexual misconduct (it not being a Commonwealth crime).
“The evidence of a misogynistic culture existing in the heart of Australian’s democracy is overwhelming,” said Ms Nagel, speaking of her “rage and disgust” that the standards at Parliament House are so different from the standards in the general community.
Alison Furber, describing herself as a mother, grandmother and “tribal woman of this Arrernte country” echoed that rage: Parliament House “is a boys’ club” with the power to control, to make law and to break it.
Young women “trying to make their life” there “get ripped” of their dignity and their womanhood.
She accused the Prime Minister of “sweeping every issue under the carpet.”
“I have no trust in our Parliament, they’ve been hurting our women since 1788 … and they’re still getting away with this. Not just the women, it’s our children …these tough men in Parliament!”
There was cheering and clapping.
Claire Pirrett, employed at the Working Women’s Centre for the last eight years, told the crowd how “deeply similar” are the stories coming out of Parliament House in the last few weeks “to the stories my colleagues and I have heard over the last 30 years.”
The response of government has also been “deeply familiar”: “Disbelief of the complainant’s story, victim blaming, mishandling of the complaints process.”
Yet she and her colleagues have not been silent, she said: they’ve told the stories to politicians and commissioners, written hundreds of submissions, given evidence to Senate inquiries, sat on advisory committees, delivered hundreds of hours of workplace training and education.
Last year the Australian Human Rights Commission released its Respect@Work report, she said. It made 55 recommendations, one of which was to continue funding (or to re-establish) Working Women’s Centres: the NT Working Women’s Centre was defunded at the end of December.
To date only one of the other recommendations has been taken up, she said.
She reminded the crowd that the March4Justice was not a solution, but rather a conversation. “The solution is the dismantling of systemic structural sexism and gender inequality.”
To this end, women at marches around the country had united in calling for:
Full independent investigations into all cases of gendered violence and timely referrals to appropriate authorities, with full accountability for findings.
Full implementation of the 55 recommendations in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces 2020.
Lifting public funding for gendered violence prevention to world’s best practice.
The enactment of a Federal Gender Equality Act to promote gender equality, and a gender equity audit of Parliamentary practices.
Sheralee Taylor, an Arrernte woman born and bred in Mparntwe, mother of two daughters and a candidate at the recent NT Election, was MC for the rally.
She set the tone by recalling that her grandmother as a young Aboriginal woman of 16 had stood up and said “Enough is enough”: “What’s sad is that over 80 years on we are still standing up and saying “Enough is enough.”
It was the refrain throughout, “Enough is enough”, sometimes accompanied by drumming.
Maree Corbo, of the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group, raised the temperature, asking the crowd, “Should women be safe in their workplace?” “Yes!” came the answer.
“Do we want our leadership to stand up for the rights of women?” – “Yes!”
“Should women be heard and believed when they report sexual assault?” – “Yes!”
“Are we angry?” – “Yes!”
“Today it’s time to unfreeze our anger and let our politicians know this is not ok!”
Marilyn Kleeman shared her personal story of mining that anger to find the courage to speak out, about her deep conditioning that “men were the protectors of women”, that they “knew what was best for me”, and about her experience of sexual assault, which led to her falling into “a deep depression, including suicidal thoughts and two half-hearted suicide attempts.”
“Is this March4Justice going to be another ‘burst’ of women protesting against the constraints of a society that was created, and is still mainly led by men?” she asked. “Will this burst of attention fizzle out and fade?”
Whatever the answer to those questions, she recognised the strength in being a survivor: “I’m alive to support Justice for Violence Against Women, regardless of attending a march or not.”
It was a sentiment powerfully reiterated in a poem addressed to “Dear woman of colour” by Mexican-born Victoria Fernandez, a refugee and migrant across two Western countries who stands in solidarity with First Nations.
“Resistance is not allowing yourself to hold bitterness / against the person who refused to shake your hand / because of the colour of your skin. That is resistance.
“Surviving police brutality at the age is 14 is resistance.
“Holding your foreign accent in pride is resistance.
“Leaving your abuser is resistance.
“Speaking your language is resistance.
“Staying alive is resistance.”
With words as weapons, “we will fight until the only story our blood spills is the one that we have written.”
Much cheering and applause.
There were some lighter moments too: Liz Ollie bravely stood alone to lead the crowd in singing Helen Reddy’s great anthem, “I am woman”. She was soon joined by three others (pictured with Ashlea Begg, Liz on the left) for a rousing if not always tuneful version: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore …”
Rosie Wild, in Alice since 2005 is “one of many women healing from being treated with disrespect.” She clearly had the advantage of performance experience in adapting to the day Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”:
“I don’t wanna be looking over my shoulder / I don’t wanna be gripping my keys, no, no, no / Imagine if we could all walk around just feeling safe and feeling free / imagine that / And this would be really simple if you took some responsibility and showed some respect to me,” she sang before coming back to the famous refrain:
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me / find out what it means to me / take care, TCB.”
Sabella Kngwarraye Turner stood alongside her, getting into the groove. A representative Elder of Central Arrernte native title holders, at the outset she had warmly welcomed the crowd, urging them to all support one another: “No matter where you come from we all have to have one voice.”
She concluded the rally with another clear and simple message: “We’ve got to make ourselves stronger and be strong for all women of all nations.”