Publish date: 10 February 2022

Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame gave an outstandingly profound joint address at the National Press Club on Wednesday. I am sure that I am one of many who were deeply moved by both Higgins and Tame and their courage, integrity and conviction.

Whilst listening to both Higgins and Tame, I felt a collective nodding of heads among so many of us who have long recognised the existence of institutions that continue to perpetuate inherent misogyny.

On stage and through their fierce advocacy over the past year, both women gave every person who has ever suffered sexual assault or sexual abuse, every person who has ever been humiliated or discriminated against on the basis of their gender or their identity, a voice – and what a voice.

Both Higgins’ and Tame’s words will make many people in positions of power uncomfortable today and in the coming days, weeks and months – and so they should. In fact, we should all feel incredibly uncomfortable.

We should all feel uncomfortable that in Australia 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.

We should all feel uncomfortable that Tame has been able to calculate that the federal government spends just 11 cents per student per year on sexual abuse prevention education.

We should feel uncomfortable that 1 in every 2 women have experienced sexual abuse or sexual harassment.

Quite frankly, we should all be outraged that people who are homeless, have a disability or are members of the LGBTIQA+ community are significantly more likely to experience sexual abuse.

Against statistics like that, and as both Higgins and Tame have said, words are just not enough. Nodding our heads in collective agreement that sexual assault and sexual abuse has no place in our communities, our homes and our workplaces is not enough.

Yesterday, both Higgins and Tame called on the federal government to discard their aspirational sentiments and vague plans and instead wield their enormous power into driving measurable, systematic change both in parliament and into the rest of the nation.

Tame concluded her address by asking the federal government to take three key steps:

1. For the government to take the issue of abuse in all its forms seriously:

“I mean proactive, preventative measures – not these reactive, bandaid, electioneering stunts like acknowledging past harm at the last minute. If you don’t take a strong stance to condemn abuse, you enable it.”

2. More funding for prevention education – which is actually implemented:

“What we need in order to create real change is meaningful investment in our children. In their education. Because they are the future of our nation.”

3. National, consistent, legislative change: 

“Still today, perpetrators of abuse find safety in outdated, inconsistent legislation which both protects them and perpetuates social ignorance.”

In 2021, sexual abuse remains devastatingly pervasive across the nation. In circumstances where sexual assault has increased 30% over the past decade, we are desperate for wide reaching systemic action.

The Respect@Work report, headed by Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, contained over 50 recommendations. Arguably one of the most critical of those recommendations related to workplace law reform and dealt with the imposition of a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation “as far as possible”.

At her appearance in front of the senate inquiry in July 2021, Ms Jenkins urged the federal government to take action and said that her committee’s research in preparing the Respect@Work report, had demonstrated that sexual harassment doesn’t just happen – it “almost thrives in some of our workplaces”.

Ms Jenkins further said that the current state of the law in Canberra seemed to only incentivise employers to discourage their employees from complaining about sexual harassment, and if a complaint was made, the legislation “encourages [employers] to side with the respondent to defend the complaint … and argue they are not responsible”.

But in the wake of that report, there has been little, if any, real action from the federal government. Which makes me wonder – ought parliament house be the model workplace and lead by example?

The reality is, as Higgins so eloquently put “sexual harassment and bullying is rife in the corridors in power”. It seems to me that it is the responsibility of corporate Australia to weigh in on the conversation and take the lead in driving essential systemic change across workplaces – after all “the tide rises with us”.

Change is hard, it is uncomfortable, but it is imperative.

You could not ignore the fury in both Higgins’ and Tame’s voices yesterday – and they should be furious. We should all be furious that political popularity is currency used when lobbying our government to ignite the change so desperately needed.  

There is no doubt to me that the media commentary over the coming days will include both analysis and critique of the demeanour and the language used by both women, and it seems to me that this predictable response will once again only distract from the real issue that remains very much alive.

Amongst all of that though, I do feel a triumphant sense of hope. To me, both Higgins and Tame represent the calibre, passion and attitudes of our future leaders.

Through their actions, the next generation of leaders have demonstrated that they are not afraid to make noise nor are they afraid to take on the task of destroying antiquated ideals and institutions.  

Higgins’ and Tame’s National Press Club address will be remembered as a significant landmark in this movement towards eradicating all forms of sexual abuse, and with these two women spearheading the reckoning, the tides are no doubt turning.

“You see me here, standing tall, if a little bit broken, standing on the shoulders of giants, standing side by side with Brittany, side by side with all of you. Together making change, making history, but above all else, making noise.”

Grace Tame

As published in Lawyers Weekly.

Watch IN FULL: Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins give a joint address at National Press Club | ABC News

Image Source: Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame at the National Press Club on Wednesday – Source – ABC News – Matt Roberts

Jemma Barnard
Jemma Barnard
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