Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins are gearing up to deliver a fiery speech to the National Press Club, as political leaders face mixed reactions after apologising to victims of harassment in Parliament.
The landmark “statement of acknowledgement” was delivered on the floor of Parliament on Tuesday, following a recommendation by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in her scathing report into workplace harassment and assault in the parliamentary workplace.
Reaction has been mixed, with one former political staffer and alleged sexual assault survivor telling The New Daily her expectations had been exceeded, while former Australian of the Year Grace Tame rebuffed the apologies as “electioneering stunts”.
House of Representatives Speaker Andrew Wallace, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Greens leader Adam Bandt all apologised to victims of workplace harassment.
Crossbencher Zali Steggall also apologised on behalf of independent MPs.
“Parliament can’t be a place of cruelty,” Mr Morrison said.
“The place that should have been a place for safety and … turned out to be a nightmare.
“I am sorry. We are sorry. I am sorry to Ms Higgins for the terrible things that took place here.”
Mr Albanese described the Jenkins review as an “overdue national reckoning” and urged MPs to lead by example.
“To describe your experiences is to relive them … That took a level of courage that you should never have needed to show,” he said.
Ms Higgins, who went public almost a year ago with her rape allegations, listened to the apologies from the House of Representatives public gallery, but left partway through.
A small group of women who also allege to have been sexually harassed or assaulted in the parliamentary workplace were visibly upset as they left the gallery.
One – former Liberal staffer Chelsey Potter – told The New Daily the apologies exceeded her expectations.
Former Liberal staffer Chelsey Potter. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily
“I was heartened by what I would take from many parties as a very sincere, heartfelt apology, which I will accept,” she said.
“We could be forgiven for being a little cynical, but I think this is a moment to draw a line in the sand, to start prioritising the workplace culture.
“Yes, they were words, but tomorrow’s actions are going to be the most important part.
“I’m coming to this in good faith now.”
Ms Potter went public in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2019 with an allegation she was sexually assaulted by a colleague.
She claimed she was restrained and had her underwear removed during a sitting week in Canberra – an allegation her colleague reportedly denied.
The former staffer to Finance Minister Simon Birmingham was one of 1700 people who gave evidence to Commissioner Kate Jenkins during her review into workplace culture at Parliament House.
“The Prime Minister is not my favourite person in the world, but I think now is the time to acknowledge what’s happened and move forward,” she said.
“I think it’s not about necessarily the Prime Minister’s words, but it’s about the actions and also what that means to not only me, but staff watching across the country.
“There’s no point fobbing on about the past. I think now is the time to look towards the future.”
But Ms Tame – a vocal critic of the Morrison government’s handling of women’s safety issues – said she wanted the government to initiate “preventative measures” instead of apologies.
“How about some proactive, preventative measures and not just these performative, last-minute bandaid electioneering stunts?” she tweeted.
Women who participated in the Jenkins review were told earlier this week that they couldn’t visit Parliament House to hear the apologies due to COVID-19 restrictions.
They were granted access on Tuesday morning after Ms Steggall intervened to secure them exemptions.
“It was frustrating – even towards the very end I had no contact with the government, it was all through Zali’s office and I’m very, very grateful to her,” Ms Potter said.
It comes as Ms Tame and Ms Higgins gear up to deliver a joint National Press Club address in Canberra on Wednesday.
Former Australian of the Year Grace Tame. Photo: AAP
The sold-out event has already caused controversy, with one Liberal backbencher telling AAP party leaders have banned MPs from attending to avoid embarrassing the government.
But senior Coalition figures have denied the claim, saying government ministers and senators have tickets despite Mr Morrison saying it was unlikely he would listen to the joint speech.
“I don’t get the opportunity to listen to all those speeches, but I’ll certainly ensure that I’m aware of what they have said, and I’m certainly, like the rest of the country, very interested in the contribution that they make and the contribution that they have made,” Mr Morrison said.
“I’m very pleased that they have been in the actions we’re taking together as a Parliament to address those very serious issues.”
Senator Birmingham told ABC Radio National on Tuesday he was aware of a “number of Liberal members or senators” who planned to attend.
He said government whips were negotiating leave for the MPs who would be absent while they attended the Press Club address.
“That’s not an unusual thing in terms of whips juggling these things,” he said.
“I am certainly aware that a number of Liberal members or senators are planning to attend.”
Liberal MP Bridget Archer said she was on a waitlist to secure a ticket.
She said she met Ms Tame this week, describing her as a “very powerful advocate for survivors of sexual abuse”.
“I would be hopeful, that if I was able to get a ticket, that I would be able to attend – I think that would be important,” she told ABC Radio.
The government is expected to introduce legislation later this week to ensure that workplace and anti-discrimination laws also apply to MP’s staff.
It also intends to set up a joint select committee to inquire into parliamentary code of conducts.
“We are absolutely acting across the range of recommendations provided by Commissioner Jenkins,” Senator Birmingham said.
“A range of actions (are) already taken and under way, and they’re building upon the fact that last year – even before receiving that report – we established the parliamentary workplace support service to provide a more independent expert process for the hearing of complaints.
“We’ve seen almost all members and senators and their staff undertake proper training processes around the management of their officers and their staff in these matters.”