The federal government has “demonstrably failed” survivors of sexual assault amid the fallout from two rape allegations that have rocked politics, a woman who spent more than 10 years in parliament says.
Former Australian Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja has revealed she was subjected to continual sexual harassment and degrading treatment throughout her parliamentary career.
The treatment of women in Australia’s halls of power has been brought into sharp focus over the past month, after rape allegations were levelled at a former Liberal staffer and Attorney-General Christian Porter, which he vigorously denied.
Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins last month alleged she was sexually assaulted in parliament by a colleague in 2019, while a historical rape allegation against the Attorney-General was aired a week ago.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed he had not read the full details of the allegation levelled at Mr Porter, despite having received them.
Ms Stott Despoja, who is now chair of Our Watch, a national foundation aimed at preventing violence against women and their children, said she felt “no empathy from the powers that be”.
“The way the government has handled this, so even the process, saddens me and angers me as much as the absolute horror nature of the allegations themselves,” she said.
“I think there’s an issue about how we treat the stories of women, victims and survivors. This government has demonstrably failed.
“I don’t sense any empathy from the powers that be.”
She has been consulting with Finance Minister Simon Birmingham over the terms of reference for a review into the culture of parliament, which he was poised to reveal on Friday.
But Mr Birmingham has, along with Mr Morrison, rejected growing calls for an independent inquiry into the Porter allegation.
Mr Morrison said on Thursday he would not surrender the rule of law to a “mob process”.
The alleged victim told police she no longer wanted to pursue the case just days before taking her own life.
And with NSW Police unable to pursue the matter citing insufficient admissible evidence, Ms Stott Despoja said a separate probe was inevitable.
“I don’t see how you can avoid an independent inquiry now,” she said.
Ms Stott Despoja, who was elected to parliament in 1995, detailed the “demeaning and upsetting” harassment she was subjected to before quitting politics in 2008.
That included being told to show her legs more and being pursued by married male MPs who were angered when rebuffed, she said.
“There were very few days, let alone weeks, that went by without references to my appearance or even my love life,” she said.
“I look back and I don’t think that my situation is different from many women from not only that time, but unfortunately from now.”
She said women were “put off” a career in politics by parliament’s culture, but hoped the past month would prove a “watershed moment” in the fight for equality.
“I hate to think what this period has meant for women who might have been contemplating a parliamentary career,” she said.
“But my message to them is: take over parliament. We know it will make a difference.
“I think change is inevitable. I feel this tide of change and I have to believe it’s going to take place.”