‘I was a staffer, and so was my perpetrator’
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
Eighteen months ago, Dhanya Mani spoke to the press about being assaulted while she was working as a Liberal Party staffer in NSW.
She said her abuser was another, more senior staffer.
At the time, she set up an advocacy organisation - Changing Our Headline. She has since worked with women across the political spectrum - all of whom have been abused in situations where power is grossly imbalanced.
When Brittany Higgins told her story last week - Dhanya began to reflect again on the structures that make staffers vulnerable, and just how culpable the prime minister is in this.
She wrote a piece for The Saturday Paper.
A warning - this episode contains detailed descriptions of sexual assault and predatory, escalating behaviour.
So in terms of doing this interview, are you… How are you feeling at the moment? Do you want to take a moment? Have you got water? Are you feeling comfortable? Talk to me about it…
No, I’m feeling comfortable, though water might be good. If there’s water around?
I’ll go get some
Are you.. so I’ve started recording on my end. Are you recording and set up at the moment?
Yeah we are.
Okay I just wasn’t sure. I guess to begin, I think, Dhanya, are you... How much do you want to say about what happened to you - about the assault - for this interview? Because we definitely don't have to. I just thought I'd ask you if you wanted to say anything and how much you wanted to say. And then we can move on to some of the other issues that you're raising.
No, I'm happy to talk about it like I think, I'm sort of at least glad that it's, in a strange way, that it's reached a point where I feel more able to actually say words about what I went through. And it's just interesting looking back and I guess comparing where I was at when I first told my story and just the fact that I, you know, I didn't really consciously register it at the time, but I couldn't really talk very explicitly about it.
Mm hmm. OK, well, can you tell me what happened?
Well, I suppose it's sort of started at a Christmas party for the young liberal moderate faction. And it was at a bar. I'd never really interacted with the perpetrator before. And we just had a very general conversation. I was aware that he was a staffer to a very senior person in New South Wales politics. So I very broadly knew that he existed, but we had had no interactions.
And when I tried to extricate myself from that conversation. He took my phone away from me so that I needed to go back to him. And you know, at that point I asked my supervisor at the time and another person to sort of retrieve my phone for me because I just felt really uncomfortable.
So I didn't really feel like I actually had power to be rude. Or say no, even if I wanted to, and I kind of feel like that characterises a lot of the experiences I had with him.
I mean, after that, he sort of sent a number of inappropriate messages asking me to, like, shop for lingerie with him and to, like, undress me and to send him, like, photos of me in my underwear. When I would obviously object to this behaviour and seem uncomfortable it would stop for a short period of time, but then it would restart.
And so I kind of stopped responding. It was like a break. The parliamentary staff at the end of the year sort of gets to the beginning of the new term in January, he sort of says like, oh, let's just go for a lunch. And he walks me to a part of the Domain that’s quite secluded and just starts kissing me. And again, I just freeze up.
And some time passes. I sort of sent him messages saying that I want him to respect my boundaries. He promises to again, a couple of weeks later, I sort of get a message on my phone saying that he thinks that he needs to talk to me. I feel afraid and say that we can only really see each other in a public place where there are a lot of people around during the day, like a cafe. And he initially says that that's fine.
Dhanya spoke at length about what she says happened. Her answer has been edited down. This next section is a description of an assault that she says happened after months of harassment.
He then just messages me saying that he's in my suburb and I just sort of felt like, again, you know, I can't afford to be rude or abrupt. I'll have the conversation. He comes inside, I just give him like a mug of tea, sit on the opposite end of the couch, avoid like any possibility of accidental touching. He then decides to announce that he's too tired to leave and he's going to stay. I don't really know what I'm meant to do with that. There's a senior person who's here. I just don't I don't know what I'm meant to do. Like, nothing makes any sense. I just I didn't feel like I kind of existed in a way.
And so I walk him sort of to the downstairs guest bedroom and sit on the very edge of the bed and say like, “OK, well, like, you know, if you say that and you are here, I guess like you can sleep in this, like downstairs room, I'm going to go up to my room” and then it's sort of at that point that he pushes me onto the bed and starts, you know, groping me.
And he was like removing his clothes and started masturbating. And, you know. I also hadn’t entirely realised, I think, because I was so shocked, that like a hand was pressing me down. Into the bed, and then I try to sit up and tell him to stop. Like, can you please stop? And he says, No. Like, you want this. And, like, pushes me like hard back down into the bed and sort of like the groping becomes even rougher and harder. And I try again and a third time and there's the same kind of like escalation of force with his actions, and it just really hurt. And I think, like at that point, I just couldn't move anymore.
And I think, like, that's always, I think, the hardest moment for me, because I think I just knew that there wasn't anything that I could do that would make it stop, and if he was being more forceful, any time I tried to, like, do anything to protect myself, then what was going to happen if I, like, tried to push him off? And like, at that point, I started to, like, wonder that maybe like the only way I sort of save myself and he doesn't, like, rape me or kill me is that I'm just still and don't move.
And, um. I think at that point, I just sort of waited for it to be over. Um. And for him to. Fall asleep.
And then, like, ran off to a corner of my house and started like messaging a friend saying, like, you need to keep messaging me because if I stop replying, then something's happened to me and like, you need to call the police. And it was only really when I was writing the piece yesterday that, you know, it's just like at multiple points, like I thought I was going to die.
And these are the things that women go through. And it's just, you know.
That my story is far from the worst that I've heard with disclosures, and most of them are as bad or worse.
Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Umm I’m sorry. How are you feeling, do you want to take a moment?
It’s just I guess.. it’s strange like I always start crying at the same moment. And I always think I’m going to be fine somehow.
Well it’s a horrible, awful thing that happened so… yeah.
I might move onto the next question, if that’s okay with you now?
I was wondering, Dhanya, when was there a moment in which you realised that sexual assault and harassment in politics was a structural issue, that these were not just stories about individual men doing bad things, that this was a systemic issue and it was about the way the system was failing women?
I think there was sort of a number of points of realisation, but I wasn't necessarily I suppose conscious of the sort of significance of all of them and knowing what the culture of political life, parliament and the party was. I mean I’d been involved since I was 17 and at the first event that I attended, before I walked in, I was given a list of names of of men that I should be aware might try to sexually harass me.
So, you know. You know, there is clearly a high level of knowledge if a teenager in school is given a list of men and told that it's her job to protect herself, and the only reason I was extended that alleged courtesy is because I was a teenager and this was the only apparent no-go area.
I've just been surrounded by the reality that I would be expected to deal with it alone because it was never: we'll have the conversation with these men to prevent them from ever doing anything to you. It was: here's a list of men; now you're on your own.
And in the aftermath of my assault, I attempted to tell people in the party about what had happened, and I was told by women in the party that I shouldn't say anything or my career would be over. I was told by other people in the party like, Oh, you know, what can you do? There's nothing for you to do. It's not like you can go to the police: like, you're a staffer.
The belief was that if you are a woman who wants a career in politics, you need to silently accept that you are very likely to be sexually abused. And if you are sexually abused, it is your job to handle that trauma on your own without ever telling anybody because you are being disloyal and dishonouring the privilege that you have of having your job and working in this place and having a political future if you do that.
I think you spoke publicly about this for the first time about 18 months ago when it was on the cover of a newspaper. Can you tell me a bit about what things have been like since then? Have you seen any change within the Liberal Party or within politics more generally? Can you tell me about what you're observing?
I made a phone call mere days after the story first went live, to the Prime Minister's office, on advice from a mentor. I just made the call to the just the offices - like the electorate office as well - to sort of see who would call me back.
I was just desperate and it's not that I was especially hopeful, but I was just desperate and hoped that maybe, you know, if anyone was going to be able to help and fix that situation, it was his office.
And I’m still waiting for my call back.
We’ll be back in a moment.
Dhanya, can I ask you about the way forward as you see it, what you think needs to change? I know you've been speaking to a lot of women in the last eight months through your advocacy. And so I'm wondering, you know, what actions would actually make a difference right now?
I think. The first and most important thing I feel both within myself and in conversations with women, including Britney, is that the Prime Minister is vital to any solution.
And a lot of people sort of speak about that in a very abstract sense of he's the leader of this country. But it's a lot more kind of concrete and clear than that. The first thing is the fact that he perpetuates the existence of of legislation that was draughted by members of parliament that functionally renders members of parliament above the law like it explicitly excludes the legislation that they've crafted to apply to every single other person in this country, in the public service or the private sector, and says that none of those protections apply to people who were staffers.
Then there's the second reality, which is that parliament, federally and parliamentary buildings are immune from the usual overview of the police. So unless there's consent of the presiding officers, police aren’t entitled to conduct investigations, make arrests or otherwise perform the usual types of support and general evidence gathering that they would in any other circumstance. And the presiding officers, again, are always people who are very close to the Prime Minister. They are always chosen by the leader. So he controls those decisions, too, in a very clear, concrete way.
There's also the fact that, you know, in the Fair Work Act, we've got like some 700 to 800 sections and in the MOPS Act, there's a 33, you know, and it's also called the members of parliament and in brackets, staff act like everything from the name through to the dedicated nature of its provisions in upholding unilateral decision making power in MPs is designed to ensure that members of parliament have arbitrary, complete power over what happens with people who work for them and in that building and in any place to do with political life.
And there's a lot of provisions in that, say the prime minister, in terms of the federal legislation, has power to sort of determine what the conditions for employment look like and arbitrarily change anything and fix anything and do whatever he wants.
So it's basically impossible for there to be reform at a national level unless the Prime Minister dictates that it should be so and so at every single level.
This is about him and he has done nothing and has no intention to do anything, and he is what needs to change, like that's the first and most important thing that needs to change. Like, do I have faith that this prime minister will? No. I personally think he should resign. And I hadn't said that before, but I just don't see another way forward.
And Dhanya, and this is my last question, I appreciate that we've been talking for a long time now, but I just wanted to ask what's in store for you? Because, you know, so many women who are harassed and assaulted, they end up leaving their careers. And so I'm wondering what your relationship is with politics now. Do you imagine that you would work in politics again?
I think it's still a really hard question.
To answer, I really care about politics and I'm extremely passionate about it and I don't feel, I think still safe enough to return to political stuff, like it's just too hard. But I, I want to make it better and I want to create the conditions both for myself and for other people to finally be able to, you know, be involved in politics and create the conditions for female leaders to exist.
And I think the reason that that matters so much to me is because the way that things work and it's sort of just unequivocally true and nobody would question this across both, of course, all of the major parties is that the people who are put in positions of staffers in a state and territory federal parliaments are people who are kind of in the pipeline to become members of parliament or members of the state or federal executives of their respective political parties. Like, that's the reason that you're put into those positions. That's the point.
And women leave at that point because those workplaces don't exist to keep them safe, to enrich them, to make them feel that they matter, to make them feel that the issues that affect them and other vulnerable minorities are going to be profiled. Because, you know, obviously in a culture where parliamentarians have unilateral power, it just brings out the absolute worst in an underlying culture of misogyny, patriarchy and racism.
There's no wonder that it's so amplified because there's absolutely nothing to abate and correct those existing kind of cultural norms. And so I kind of see the work that I'm doing is sort of an absolutely necessary first step in creating the conditions for future female leaders to exist.
Well, I wish you all the best with the work that you're doing, and thank you so much for talking to me.
Thanks so much. I appreciate it.
If this has raised issues for you, you can get support at 1800 RESPECT. Those numbers are: 1800 737 732.
Eighteen months ago, Dhanya Mani spoke to the press about being assaulted while working as a Liberal Party staffer. This week, she reflected on how little has changed - and how culpable the prime minister is for that.
Guest: Lawyer and founder of Changing Our Headline Dhanya Mani.
‘I was a staffer, and so was my perpetrator’ in The Saturday Paper
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard.
Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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