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How rape allegations among Australia's political elite reignited its #MeToo movement

   March 7, 2021 9:42 PM
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by Hilary Whiteman, CNN

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Brisbane (CNN)When Australia's attorney general last week outed himself as the minister accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in 1988, his denial was emphatic.

"The things that I have read did not happen, and to suggest that they could be forgotten is ridiculous," said Christian Porter, who oversees legal affairs and national security, before starting a period of mental health leave. For Prime Minister Scott Morrison, that was the end of the matter. The alleged victim didn't file a police statement before she died, age 49, last year. After police closed the case last week, citing a lack of "admissible evidence," Morrison refused to order an independent inquiry into the allegations, which emerged after statements by the alleged victim were anonymously sent to the Prime Minister's office and two female politicians from other parties. For many Australians, however, the case is not closed. Far from it.

Across the country, thousands of women are planning protests for March 15, when they will present a petition to Parliament House calling for the government to investigate all allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by Members of Parliament and their staff. Yet their demands go far deeper than parliament. They want structural and cultural change to achieve equity across the country, in schools, workplaces and the justice system. "We don't want another report, (or) someone saying, 'Oh, we'll look into the matter.' This has to change, right here, right now," said Janine Hendry, a reluctant protest organizer behind the March 15 rallies. "I didn't think at 58 years old, I would be an activist," Hendry added. "Nor did I think at 58 years old I would be taking to the streets to protest against this stuff. I thought we'd moved beyond it -- but we haven't." Hendry inadvertently tapped into a well of anger when she typed a quick tweet last Sunday, venting her frustration that women in Australia are still fighting for equality in 2021. In just six days, more than 22,000 people joined her Facebook group, March 4 Justice. The group now has a presence on multiple social media platforms. It's not just Hendry. In London, another Australian woman, half Hendry's age, is trawling through thousands of emails detailing alleged sexual assaults on schoolgirls in Australia. Chanel Contos' movement started with a few friends sharing stories of sexual assault. It's since morphed into a website and petition calling for education and change. The two groups represent different demographics of Australian women -- and both are angry.

'White-hot rage' It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that tripped the wire on women's fury in Australia, though it could have been two weeks ago when Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal Party staffer, alleged she was raped in the defense minister's office in 2019. Higgins said she was inspired to come forward by Grace Tame, a former victim of grooming and sexual assault, who was named Australian of the Year in January for her work urging other women to speak out. They have listened.

Higgins' allegation prompted an apology from the Prime Minister, who announced a number of investigations into the incident and insisted the culture in parliament would change. However, Morrison's explanation of his decision-making process raised eyebrows. "Jenny and I spoke last night," Morrison said, referring to his wife. "And she said to me, 'You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?' "Jenny has a way of clarifying things." It led one female reporter to ask: "What would happen if men don't have a wife and children? Would they reach the same compassionate conclusion?" Critics seized on Morrison's choice of words as evidence he didn't comprehend the issue.

The same was later suggested of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who referred to Higgins' allegations as "he said, she said." His words were interpreted as an attempt to minimize Higgins' allegation. Since then, the level of discourse has disintegrated further, with Higgins threatening to sue Defense Minister Linda Reynolds for allegedly calling her a "lying cow." Reynolds apologized for the comments, which Morrison said were uttered in private during a "very traumatic week." Discussion over who said what and when soon shifted to reports of another bombshell allegation -- that a cabinet minister was accused of raping a teenage girl more than 30 years ago. The woman wasn't alive to tell her story, but her friends sent documents, including old excepts of the woman's diary, to the Prime Minister and senators from rival parties. A cover letter urged them to act, according to one senator who received it. Morrison waited three days to respond amid public speculation on whether he should sack or suspend the minister, perhaps during an independent investigation. He didn't do either, and accepted Porter's denial. The reaction was swift. "I can say quite genuinely that I have never felt the outpouring of white-hot rage from as many women, but also actually quite a few men, as I have in the last 24 hours," said Georgie Dent, executive director of The Parenthood, a non-profit group for parents, on Tuesday. "The idea that they can carry on with business as usual is completely untenable."

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