ANU: Experts predict Reckoning at polls

As Australia barrels towards the federal election, experts from The Australian National University (ANU) say voters may take their frustration with political inaction on sexism and sexual violence to the polls.  

Since early 2021, the movement known as the Reckoning has fuelled an upsurge of discontent among people tired of the government’s alleged lack of accountability around gender inequality.  

Dr Michelle Ryan, Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL) at ANU, predicts women’s votes and what are often described as ‘women’s issues’ will play an important role in deciding who wins the most seats at the next federal election, due to be held in May.  

“We saw in the 2020 US election how female voters shaped the electoral outcome, and it could very well be the same here in Australia this year,” she says.   

Actions speak louder than words

Although the Reckoning could not exist without the #MeToo movement, it has taken on a life of its own in the last 12 months.  

In March 2021, more than 100,000 people protested peacefully at March4Justice rallies around Australia, calling for equality, justice, respect and an end to gendered violence. 

While the #MeToo slogan was a powerful unifier when the associated movement gained global traction in 2017, Dr Amanda Laugesen from the Australian National Dictionary Centre at ANU says one of the key differences with the current movement is that no defining catchphrases or hashtags have emerged.

“One of the most notable things about the recent movement has been that it is about action – and calls for action – rather than just language,” she says.  

In her National Press Club address alongside survivor advocate Grace Tame, former Coalition staffer and GIWL Visiting Fellow Brittany Higgins said: “I’m not interested in words anymore…actions are what matter. And that will be the true test of whether the government is committed to creating systemic change.”

Dr Blair Williams from GIWL says that this collective demand for action may have an influence on which parties and politicians voters back at the upcoming election.

“Many Australians have had ‘enough’ and are calling for change. An end to sexual violence and discrimination not only in parliament but around the country. 

“We’ve watched over the past year as Scott Morrison and other members of the government have made blunder after blunder in their response to the many sexual assault and harassment cases that have become public. And this has had an impact on their polling – especially when it came to women voters.”

In the months following the 2021 March4Justice rallies, polling revealed that support for the Coalition had dropped by four per cent among female voters since the 2019 election. Recent ANU research also found that 38 per cent of women who would have voted for the Coalition in January 2021 had changed their preference twelve months later.

Stunts aren’t enough

In response to the allegations of sexual assault made by Higgins, the government initiated the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, headed up by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.  

Only one of the 28 recommendations made by Jenkins has been enacted in the months since the review was released: a public apology to people who had experienced bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in parliamentary workplaces.  

The historic formal acknowledgement was made in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was attended by a small group of survivors – including Higgins – only after a late invitation was extended through the efforts of Independent MP Zali Stegall.  

PhD candidate Intifar Chowdhury from the ANU School of Politics and International Relations describes the acknowledgement as an election stunt.  

“Young women of this generation will not be pacified by the mere words of a disingenuous apology. Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame represent our sentiments and reflect how we will take the memory of political action – or lack thereof – to the polls.” 

Raising impatient voices

Both Higgins and survivor advocate Tame have been instrumental leaders of the movement, using their profiles and platforms to hold decision-makers accountable.  

Dr Sonia Palmieri is a Gender Policy Fellow at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. She says that the Reckoning has been a long time coming.

“Gender inequality and power imbalances which essentially drive sexual assault and sexual violence are not new. But it is thanks to the persistent, passionate and now impatient voices of women like Tame and Higgins that Australia’s leaders have heard first-hand about the traumatic consequences of inaction and dismissal.”

Ryan says that young women have played a powerful role in shaping public discourse.

“It’s not just talk, they have advocated for change and achieved change. This is real leadership, and they are indeed role models for us all.”

These young activists are also admired by the public for their refusal to conform to societal expectations.

“Many women feel the pressure to smile and be polite, regardless of the circumstances, and they relate to Grace Tame challenging these norms,” Laugesen says. “Women who show anger or aggression or use bad language are seen as particularly subversive.”

Dr Brenda Croft from the ANU Centre for Art History and Art Theory is of the Gurindji, Malngin and Mudburra peoples. She says that while the ingrained gender and racial power imbalance in society isn’t always explicit, it’s ever-present, and that women have always been expected to simply accept that’s how things are.

“My lived experience – First Nations and non-Indigenous – has never allowed me to accept that default position…I intend to go through life continuing to kick against the pr%$ks, all those who obstruct equity and justice – especially for First Nations women, but also for women of colour, women from disadvantaged backgrounds and young women who disappoint, don’t smile enough or know their place.”

Independent Women

One of the most notable trends in the lead up to the election has been the increase in the number of female independent candidates.

Williams says these candidates, who are mostly running in safe Liberal seats, are fighting to “rid Parliament House of its toxic and patriarchal culture”.

“It’ll be interesting to see how this might impact or shape the next election and what these independents will do in parliament if they succeed.”

Ryan says that this trend suggests women want to raise their voices outside of the traditional political party structures.

“Women have a lot to say, and they want a stage on which to be heard.”

Workers hold the power

But will all this frustration and momentum be reflected when the votes are counted on election night?

Dr Jenna Price is a Visiting Fellow at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy. She says that if voters come to understand sexism and misogyny are workplace issues, then this may tip the balance.

“Women work. They know exactly what their workplaces are like, and they know there are little to no protections for them at work; human resources departments are in the business of protecting the reputations of their employers and not in the business of protecting women at work.”

Price says that legislating on “positive duty” – a recommendation made by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkin in 2020 Respect@Work report – would have been a way for the government to improve the lives of working women by shifting the culture of HR departments. The suggested amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act would have required employers to take active steps to eliminate sexual harassment. The Federal Government response to the recommendation argued that current workplace health and safety laws already covered this issue.

“If campaigners can translate these issues to what happens to women at work, they have a real shot at convincing voters and protecting and supporting Australian women into the future,” Price says. “Working women are the key to the outcome of this election and if they collaborate to support each other, we will see change.”

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