Two prominent advocates for survivors of sexual abuse pilloried Australia’s prime minister Wednesday, decrying “weasel words” and a response to widespread abuse that had not “measured up.”
Former government aide Brittany Higgins—whose allegation she was raped in parliament sparked national protests—said “too little has changed” since she went public a year ago.
In a widely watched speech, Higgins was sorrowful and withering about the actions of a conservative government she once served.
Higgins said Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to her claims, which invoked his own daughters and wife, had been “shocking and at times, admittedly, a bit offensive.”
“I didn’t want his sympathy as a father. I wanted him to use his power as prime minister,” she said.
“But his words wouldn’t matter if his actions had measured up.”
Higgins said the national conversation about ending abuse, harassment, and assault had not progressed beyond “trading off offensive, tone-deaf statements for a convoluted mix of appeasing weasel-words.”
Higgins was joined in her address by child sexual abuse survivor Grace Tame, the 2021 “Australian of the Year” who also took aim at the prime minister’s leadership over the past year.
“It rots from the top,” Tame 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.”
The plight of both women had fueled national debate and soul searching in Australia, as well as multiple government investigations.
One of those, the 450-page Jenkins Review, found that one-in-three people currently working in parliament and other federal government workplaces have experienced sexual harassment while working there.
Tame piled further pressure on the government during her speech by alleging she was asked not to publicly criticie the prime minister.
She recalled a “threatening phone call from a senior member of a government-funded organization asking for my word that I wouldn’t say anything damning about the prime minister” at a recent award ceremony.
Tame said the caller told her the prime minister “would have a fear… with an election coming soon.”
Australia’s next federal election must be held by mid-May.
Morrison did not attend Higgins and Tame’s address, citing other commitments, however several members of his government were in the audience.
Speaking in parliament later Wednesday, Morrison was asked about the progress his government had made on the issue of women’s safety.
He cited an upcoming 10-year plan for women’s safety, among other measures.
Higgins said the plan’s “aims are so lofty and vague that it’s impossible to disagree with and equally difficult to examine.”
Tame called for more funding for consent training in schools. She said between 2020-22, the government “planned to spend 11 cents per student per year on prevention education.”
Both women ruled out any plans to run for political office.