On Wednesday, Brittany Higgins and 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame gave incredibly powerful speeches at the National Press Club.
Needless to say, Higgins and Tame didn’t buy it, and had a lot to say about Morrison’s inaction.
Here are the two speeches in full:
Brittany Higgins’ National Press Club Address:
I was raped on a couch in what I thought was the safest and most secure building in Australia. In a workplace that has a police and security presence 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The parliament of Australia is safe — it is secure — except if you’re a woman.
If what happened to me can happen there, it can happen anywhere. And it does. It happens to women everywhere.
A little over a year ago, I sat down with my partner David, and I told him that I’d decided to speak publicly about my assault. Knowing that it would mean quitting my job and likely leaving Canberra, knowing it would mean subjecting myself to judgement, to vitriol, to political hit jobs and online hate.
I made my decision to speak out because the alternative was to be part of the culture of silence inside Parliament House. I spoke out because I wanted the next generation of staffers to work in a better place. To take up a dream job like I did. And for it to live up to their hopes and not betray them. And above all, I decided to speak out because I hoped it would make it easier for other women to speak out too.
It’s become my whole life mantra right through the past 12 months — to make it easier for other women to speak — so while I’m very grateful to take the chance to talk at the National Press Club, I want to stress that I don’t pretend to speak for all survivors. Not for a minute do I imagine that I could. Everyone’s trauma is personal. Everyone’s story of abuse and fear and betrayal and humiliation takes a different shape. I never wanted to be a spokesperson or a standard-bearer, but I do know that it’s easier to share your story if you recognise something of it in someone else’s. And above all, I believe it will be easier for women to share their stories if they see it makes a difference in the workplace, in our national life, and in our parliament.
That’s what keeps me speaking out — my determination to drive change.
Nearly a year after the March4Justice made its way to the threshold of federal parliament, too little has changed. If you go back and read articles from March 15, there was a sense of a national moment of reckoning. A feeling of unstoppable momentum. An irresistible force. A raging current that would not be turned aside by tired old platitudes from fathers of daughters.
But I stand here today fearful that this moment of transformative potential, the bravery of all those women who spoke up and stood up and said “Enough is enough” is in danger of being minimised to a flare-up, a blip on the radar, a month-long wonder in the national conversation.
Or, worse, just a political perception problem neutralised and turned into a net positive. Even beyond that, I’m worried what too many people beyond the government and the media took out of the events of last year was that we need to be better at talking about the problem.
In a lot of cases, that seems to have meant trading off offensive, tone-deaf statements for a convoluted mix of appeasing weasel-words. In the national conversation, we have this passive, anonymous language vaguely talking about “wrongs done” as if sexual violence falls out of the sky. As if it is perpetrated by no-one. As if it is inflicted on no-one.
For a start, recognising there’s a problem is 50 years short of what’s required.
I wanted him to wield the weight of his office and drive change in the party and our parliament, and out into the country. And one year later, I don’t care if the government has improved the way that they talk about these issues.
I’m not interested in words anymore. I want to see action.
Late last year, we saw the final report from the Jenkins review, commissioned by Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, who very kindly is here today. It revealed what many of us in this room already know to be true. Sexual harassment and bullying is rife in the corridors of power, with over 51 per cent of participants reporting incidents of this nature.
I earnestly thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their statements of acknowledgement and apologies offered yesterday to victims of abuse in our national parliament. In addition, I’d like to acknowledge Zali Steggall, who enabled a handful of us to actually attend in person.
It was encouraging, and an important sentiment, but I am cognisant that, at this point in time, they are still only words. Actions are what matter. And what will be the true test of whether the government is committed to creating systemic change.
Task forces are great. Codes of conduct are important. But only if it’s paired with institutional change.
There are 28 recommendations in the Jenkins review and, without their implementation, we will continue to see this toxic culture exist within our most powerful institution.
The cornerstone of which is the office of parliamentary staffing and culture, legislative reform to the MOP(S) Act, and an independent complaints mechanism for the entirety of Parliament House.
Without these changes, women will inadvertently continue to be discouraged from taking up rolls within parliament, or take a seat at the leadership table.
If we truly want a gender-inclusive society, we need more vocal women in rooms where key decisions are being made to ensure that there is a gender lens placed over national policy. This starts with the implementation of the Jenkins review.
The question is, if this moment doesn’t spark change in our parliament, what will?
I may have been naive but, up until 2021, I truly didn’t realise that gender was still a defining feature of my humanity. I thought of myself as a university student. A government employee. An Australian. But I have now been forced to come to terms with the fact that my gender is still a key feature of my personhood to some people.
That brings me to the National Action Plan. The release of the draft national plan to end violence against women and children has been hotly anticipated. More than a decade after it historic launch, rates of violence far too high. In fact, they’ve barely changed since the launch of the plan and, in some cases, they’ve actually increased.
This lack of action at the national level has seen the states go it alone. Victoria had the first royal commission into family violence, spurred on by the bravery of another former Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty.
For women over the age of 15, one in four have experienced intimate partner violence. One in two women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. I bet you’ve heard those statistics rattled off at white-ribbon breakfasts and at the top of ministerial statements for a decade. I know I have. But recognising these horrific facts is no longer sufficient.
Women with disability across Australia experience significantly higher levels of all forms of violence. For example, nine out of 10 women with an intellectual disability report experiencing sexual assault. And Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised, and 11 times more likely to die due to assault.
Any single one of these statistics should challenge us. They should confront us. They should spur us to do whatever it takes. But instead, they’ve become sort of this throat-clearing exercise that we all just kind of tolerate.
A mumbled performance before we get into some old talk about slow and difficult change is. To its credit, the national plan doesn’t aim low. Unfortunately, its aims are so lofty and vague that it’s impossible to disagree with and equally difficult to examine.
The plan talks about a future free from violence against women and their children, claiming that it will serve as a blueprint for change that sets out our collective ambitions, priorities and targets for how we will work to end violence against women and children over the next 10 years. It claims to integrate all we have learnt since 2010.
These aspirational statements are, indeed, ambitious, and equal to the scale of the challenge. But the question is — how will they be achieved? That is, unfortunately, where the draft plan has lost its way.
Instead, it is largely a collection of statistics describing the problem, filled with warm sentiments and platitudes attached to noble outcomes which lacks the promised learnings from the past decade towards a future free from violence against women and children, and clear targets to that end.
Without clearer action and firm targets, there can be no accountability. And without accountability, we are back to a world where we are describing the problem being seen as sufficient.
The draft plan does not even directly acknowledge the fact that we’ve failed on our first account. Out one single measure for success, a target to see a significant and sustained reduction in violence against women and their children during the next 12 years, we failed.
How can you speak on drawing on everything you have learned without confessing the failure of the one test we have set ourselves?
Instead, we have monitored acknowledgements that rates of domestic violence have remained stable and rates of sexual violence have increased.
In response, the planet laments wistfully that more needs to be done, but if it is more of the same compounded by a refusal to examine the past failures, let alone examine them, then this plan will not be worth the glossy paper it will eventually be printed on and Australian women and children will suffer through another decade of violence and abuse while politicians and policymakers bring their hands about the fact that we need to turn things around in 2040.
As I think you have gathered by now, my patient has run out.
I want to close by saying that for all the fear and anger and sadness that my time in politics has brought me, it did not take away my belief in Australia, my faith in democracy.
I know our country can do better for women and girls. I know our Parliament will be a better, stronger place if more women are ministers and members and senators
Grace Tame’s National Press Club Address:
On the 17 August last year, not five months after being named Australian of the Year, I received a threatening fine call from a senior member of a government funded organisation, asking for my word that I would not say anything examining about the Prime Minister on the evening of the next Australian of the Year Awards.
“You are an influential person. He will have a fear,” they said. They fear? What kind of fear – I asked myself. I fear for our nation’s most vulnerable? A fear for the future of our plan? And then I heard the words,” with an election coming soon…”
And it crystallised a fear — eight fear for himself and no-one else, a fear that himself and no-one else, a fear he might lose his position or, more to the point, his power.
Sound familiar to anyone? Well, it does to me.
I remember standing in the shadow of a trusted authority figure, being threatened in just the same veiled way. I remember him saying, “I will lose my job if anyone hears about that, and you would not want that, would you? No.”
What I wanted in that moment he is at the same thing I want right now, and that is an end to the darkness, an end to sexual violence, safety, equity, respect, a better future for all of us — peace, a future driven by unity and truth, not one dictated authoritatively under the politics of division and spin.
The freedom of speech? I have not always had it. Many still don’t. So if those of us with a voice do not use it to fight for what is right, divide for those without a voice, then what hope is there? What is the point of life if not to connect and communicate honestly and openly with one another in the pursuit of progress aware that whatever means possible? What is the point of awarding someone who fought their work only to stifle them while they do it when it gets too real?
I am here because I made a conscious decision to stand up to evil, and I have been calling out injustice ever since. To retreat into silence now would be hypocritical. What’s more, we are still seeing it pervasively, subliminally weaponised as far as I am concerned. You either fight it, or you are a part of it.
Last time I was in this room, I was goaded into making a comment about Scott’s response to Brittany allegations, despite the MC’s stern warning that the topic was out of bounds. In the end, I said it should not take having children to have a conscience, and also having children does not guarantee a conscience.
Not long afterward, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet conducted a review into the National Australia Day Council — a selection process for the Australian of the Year Awards, a transparent intimidation tactic, designed to rattle the cage of an organisation whose funding it mostly comes from the Federal Government.
The Australian of the Year Awards program is an institution. So, too, is our Parliament. So, too, is a democracy. I respect that wholeheartedly. But politicians — like all individuals — are available. Human.
And although we, the people, collect them as per the institution of democracy to be our leaders, our examples, it is ultimately up to them what they choose to be examples of, whether they respect the privilege and purpose of this power or whether they abuse it at our expense. They may either be constructive or destructive.
But every single one of them is, inarguably, replaceable. Like me.
So, why put my reputation on the line? Because when we act with integrity, the tide rises with us. When we act with integrity, we set a more esteemed bar for those who take our place.
In any event, I would rather go down as a disappointment to an institution than sell out as a pandering political puppet to the corrupt forces that coercively control it.
Repeatedly this year, I have seen the patterns of deception and deceit performed by predators mimicked in our halls of power. And that’s just it.
The federal government’s approach to social issues seems to consist of nothing but empty announcements, placatory platitudes, superficial last-minute acknowledgements, and carefully staged photo ops. Facades and false hope. Reviews, reports, delays, and distractions — if not downright denials. All deliberate spin tactics designed to satiate the press and the general public.
And so, I conclude with something — hopefully — more constructive to take away. I conclude with three key asks to better our nation.
The first is for a government that takes the issue of abuse, in all its forms, seriously.
In regards to the sexual abuse of children and others, there can be no progress without accountability — as Brittany said. Unless our leaders take full responsibility for their own failings, abuse culture will continue to thrive inside parliament, setting a corrupt standard for the rest of the nation. It rots from the top. And by “full responsibility”, 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.
Lest I mention the symbolism of promoting an alleged rapist, protecting him from an independent inquiry, and then allowing him to receive a million dollars worth of anonymous donations.
The second ask is for adequate funding to be actually implemented, not just announced or committed to, for prevention education to stop all of this before it actually starts.
The federal government is prepared to spend over $90 billion of taxpayers’ money on submarines that might be ready by 2040 to combat a potential offshore threat. $2.4 billion of that has already been wasted — gone.
Compare that to what they’re prepared to spend on the very real epidemic of violence against women and children affecting 1 in 4 today here at home. Just $1.1 billion in total. And if we just single out prevention education — which is where the real hope for change is — the numbers are even sadder.
In 2019, the federal government announced it would spend just $2.8 million over a three-year period, delivering a sexual and domestic violence prevention education program in schools called Respect Matters. But in reality, less than half of that amount was given, without explanation.
As my friend Shanna Bremner — founder of End Rape on Campus in Australia — pointed out, there’s around four million students enrolled in schools across the nation, according to the ABS.
So, from 2020 until 2022, if you divide the $1.36 million they actually gave by four million students, it works out that the federal government had planned to spend 11 cents per student per year on prevention education. 11 cents per student.
This is because we currently have a government that is primarily concerned with short-sighted, votes-based funding, not with long-term, needs-based funding. And 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.
And the third ask is for national, consistent, legislative change.
Still today, perpetrators of abuse find safety in outdated, inconsistent legislation which both protects them and perpetuates social ignorance.
For example, the man who abused me who I spoke about before was convicted of maintaining a sexual relationship with a person under the age of 17. In other jurisdictions, this exact same offence was called “the persistent sexual abuse of a child”.
The former charge implies consent, while the latter reflects the gravity and the truth of an unlawful criminal act committed against an innocent child victim.
Piece by piece, we must correct the narrative and take control away from abusers who have, for so long, sought solace in our systems and institutions that shield them from the full extent of what they’ve done.
These changes are achievable.
LetHerSpeak, created and run by Nina Furnell, led to Tasmania not only reforming its gag law, but also the wording of the offence to “persistent child sexual abuse”. And, as a direct result of the Grace Tame Foundation’s Harmony campaign to create greater consistency between the state and territories on sexual assault legislation, this week, the ACT’s Attorney-General, Shane Rattenbury, is introducing the Family Violence Legislation Amendment Bill to the Legislative Assembly.
One of the key amendments in the bill, which we called for on the 12th of November, is to change the name of the offence “sexual relationship with a child” to “persistent sexual abuse of a child”. And that’s because of our work.
Now, whilst I commend the ACT on overhauling these laws, we need to ensure that every state and territory adopts the best-practice model of not only the charge itself, but the complete wording of the legislation.
Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia have all adopted the wording of “persistent sexual abuse”. But Victoria and Western Australia are the only two jurisdictions in which the word “relationship” does not appear anywhere in the body of the legislation. We still have so much work to do.
It’s all well and good to change heart and minds with our conversations. But without structural change, we will continue to be at the mercy of systems that override them.
Now, let me restate those three key asks. The first is for a government that takes the issue of abuse in all its forms seriously. The second is for the implementation of adequate funding for prevention education to stop these things before they even start. The third is for national, consistent, structural change.
We still have so much work to do.
But in saying all of this, before we end today, we mustn’t forget how far we’ve come.
In just 12 short months, we’ve collectively shifted the dial towards survivor voices. We have amplified lived experience to unprecedented levels and, in doing so, restored courage and hope back to a previously disempowered community.
We are on the path to achieving nationwide safety, equity, and respect. An advocate is only as powerful as their supporters.
You see me here standing tall, if a little bit broken. Standing on the shoulders of giants. Side by side with Brittany. Side by side with all of you. Together, making change. Making history. But above all else, making noise!