“The system isn't broken. It was never set up for women.”
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.
Last Monday more than 100,000 Australians marched for justice, spurred on by an allegation of sexual assault in Parliament House.
But the march highlighted problems that go beyond federal parliament. Problems that include a justice system stacked against women, from the law, to the police, to the courts.
Today, lawyer and writer Bri Lee on the barriers to justice, and the steps being taken to reform the system.
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Bri, we’re a week on now from the March 4 Justice and at that rally, I spoke to a lot of women and I was struck by how many of them were so fed up with the fact that they had to be here protesting again on something that seems so simple and so basic in 2021. And I wonder, is that frustration something that you felt and saw as well?
Yes, absolutely. Exasperation as well. Frustration, people holding up signs saying, ‘I can't believe I still have to do this shit’, you know, ‘I was here in the 70s’ - just so much anger and exhaustion. And I think as well, in the last four or five weeks, it just keeps getting worse.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Protester:
“Enough is enough!”
First, you know, inaction in the face of Brittany Higgins's complaints and then the revelations about the allegations against Christian Porter, the fact that there was no independent inquiry; and then, on the morning of the marches, Porter, announcing that he was suing Louise Milligan and the ABC for defamation. It's shocking but not surprising how we just keep being disappointed. It keeps getting worse.
And I think as well, by the end of the day and when I was reflecting on what happened at the marches, there was this bigger idea, right, that women aren't safe in any space, really. There's no workplace, there's no industry in Australia where this doesn't happen. And women across the board are angry about the situation. And I'm wondering if we can step through that, starting with the workplace and what's in place and the ways in which the system is failing women at that very first level.
Yeah, I really like the way you framed that question, too, because we're sort of publicly having these conversations on a national scale now about how obviously women aren't safe on the street, you know, when they're trying to get home at night. But also, women aren't safe in their homes, they're most likely to be killed by a current or former partner. And now they're also not safe at work. So, yeah, that's a really important way of understanding this problem, that women aren't safe anywhere.
Specifically in relation to the workplace, different states and territories have their own workplace harassment and sex discrimination legislation, but there is also the Sex Discrimination Act federally, which is what we've seen discussed in the news the most in the past week.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:
“The week in federal politics was really dominated by these nation wide rallies calling for an end to gendered violence and sexism, and the themes from those protests, are driving calls for change to key parts of the Sexual Discrimination Act.”
Something that's really important to understand about the Sex Discrimination Act is that it doesn't actually provide any incentives for workplaces or for management to stamp out harassment and assault-like behaviours. It still puts all of the onus for making a noise, for trying to make change on a person who's already being targeted for this conduct.
And for some strange reason, MPs are not covered by the Sex Discrimination Act and neither are judges or other statutory appointees.
And something I was shocked to realise when I was researching this week is that a report that was done back in 1992 flagged these gaps, and nothing was done. And the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins’s report, Respect at Work, which was delivered, I believe, in early last year, also flagged this exclusion and still nothing has been done.
Archival Tape -- Zali Stegall:
“The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept.”
So the latest is that independent MP Zali Stegall has had to introduce the move as a private member's bill to try and get people who work in those spaces, both protected, and held responsible by that piece of legislation.
Archival Tape -- Zali Stegall:
“If you fail to adopt this amendment, you are endorsing sexual harassment in our workplace. You are saying MP’s should not be held to the same standard as others.”
And Bri, if harassment or violence isn't addressed by the workplace or it happens outside of work contexts like you say on the street or in the home, there is an option to go to the police. But we know that reporting rates are extremely low and there is not much faith in that process. Can you tell me about why that is?
Yes, well, the stats are that about nine out of ten women who have been targeted for a sex crime don't report that to the police. And also, it's really important to note here specifically that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have real and valid fears of the police. And also women from culturally and linguistically diverse communities have extra reasons not to trust the police. The fact of the matter is, calling the cops when something goes wrong is not an option for all Australians.
It's still, in my opinion, a game of Russian roulette. If you either call the cops or walk into a cop shop, whether you get a good cop or a bad cop who believes you or one who slut shames you.
And the stats demonstrate that for the vast majority of women, if they experience abuse or assault or rape, they still don't feel like calling the cops is an option for them. There are a huge number of reasons for that. And they all, in my opinion, come back to this sort of overlapping venn diagram of attitudes and funding.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:
“What if technology could be used to formally record consent for intimate experiences? Mick Fuller, the NSW Police Commissioner, says this is an idea we definitely need to explore.”
Something that also just sort of exploded across my Twitter feed was the New South Wales Police Commissioners idea of a “consent app”.
Archival Tape -- Mick Fuller:
“..We've spoken about technology and does that offer opportunity? Because we know technology now is, more people meet using technology than they do in bars and other locations. And can that be something that assists us?”
And to me that highlights just how bad various police services, understandings around consent and sexual violence is.
Archival Tape -- Mick Fuller:
“...I think the app has at least brought this issue up, and people are talking about it.”
Because they think that an app would be a way to solve this problem.
Yes. Which is frankly offensive and not at all what advocates have been asking for consistently for decades now.
Hmm. And so just say someone does go through this process, as you say, they speak to the right sort of police officer who does take them seriously. A report is taken and that all goes into motion. If it does go well, then someone would potentially end up in the court system. But then there's this whole other set of problems. So can you tell me about the barriers to getting justice within the legal system?
Yeah, absolutely. So one of the first and most obvious problems I see, and it's one I experienced myself, is that it is considered just sort of normal and part of the process that the time it might take from complaint to maybe something going to trial if you're “lucky” is easily two, three, four years.
And unfortunately, case attrition is really high at the police stage, but it's also pretty high at the prosecution stage. And it's easy to understand why a survivor of abuse or assault would not want to have that cloud hanging over them for that many years.
Something that's also very painful and frustrating about that process is that once you've made a complaint, you are considered a witness rather than a sort of core party to the proceedings.
And then, like, we haven't even started talking about how horrific the actual trial process is for people who do even make it that far. And we are starting to see more and more people speak up about how atrocious the council's behaviour in cross-examination and during trials can be.
So I would not characterise the system as being broken. I would characterise the system as never having offered any real options for women who've been targeted for a private or gendered crimes, and that's for domestic and family abuse, as well as child sexual abuse and adult sexual assault.
It's not that the system at some point in time dealt with these adequately and it's no longer doing that. We cannot characterise the system as being broken. It was never set up for women or children in the first place, and it needs to be examined and re-examined regularly.
We'll be back after this.
Bri, you've been outlining all the ways in which our criminal justice system is stacked against women seeking justice, are there any signs that you see that people in power, politicians, police, you know, justices are acknowledging that, and trying to fix it?
There may be cause for cautious optimism in my home state of Queensland. I feel like a bit of a fool for holding out any hope, to be honest. But the fact is, in Queensland, this is the first time that there has been an overlap in somebody holding the two portfolios of Attorney-General and Minister for Women.
And I do believe that is significant. Often portfolios such as Minister for Women and or the Minister for Indigenous Affairs are seen as these sort of toothless charity spots, they are far more frequently given to women MPs. Sometimes they even just sort of rolled into one.
And the new Attorney-General, since the most recent Queensland state election, her title is Shannon Fentimen, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Women and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence. And she has pretty big plans.
Archival Tape -- Shannon Fentimen:
“We have some breaking news from the Queensland parliament this morning with the premier announcing that the Women's Safety and Justice Taskforce, that is already looking at how best to legislate against coercive control, will also examine the barriers that women face in our criminal justice system.”
So she has put together and just announced a 10 person taskforce, they will be advising the government on pretty much anything and everything to do with women and the criminal justice system.
Archival Tape -- Shannon Fentimen:
“With 1 in 5 women experiencing sexual assault here in Queensland since the age of 15, and 1 in 4 experiencing assault at the hands of a partner, we know we have to do more to keep women safe and give them access to justice and this is a significant step forward today.”
And so what do you make of this review? Do you feel confident about the way that it’s being framed and the direction that it’s heading?
Yeah, the fact is that sometimes reviews work and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the findings of reviews can be really disappointing. Sometimes the findings of reviews can be fantastic, but they're just not even acted upon. I mean, Kate Jenkins's report had 55 recommendations and it's just been sitting on the government's desk.
Something that I also think is really important to note about this new Queensland task force and review, which does sort of give me a bit of extra hope, is that two of the people on the taskforce, are representatives from the police and from the DPP, and the idea is then that those two organisations will both be accountable to the report's findings.
And the Attorney-General, Shannon Fentiman, told me when we spoke about an hour after we'd both attended marches, that legislative change would be one part of the review, but that things like prevention and barriers and how we allocate prosecutors, how we collect evidence and how women give evidence in court, that all of those things would be looked at holistically. And that is yeah, that is, I think, cause for optimism.
Ok. So a note of optimism there then. But given the scale and depth of the problem, how are you feeling about the prospect of systemic change?
Well, I am slightly buoyed by the polling showing that there have been significant decreases in positivity towards both Morrison as PM and the Coalition as preferred party, not even specifically for any sense of party politics. But what I'm hoping is that change in polling sends a message to all politicians that “women's issues” might actually be of national significance. And I just hope that that has ramifications for all politicians, regardless of their party affiliations.
And something I would also really like to see is that hopefully we can wrestle feminism back from the clutches of this sort of white corporate version of feminism, which excludes more people than it includes.
I mean, they cry on camera while sniping at “lying cows” and they ignore really entrenched issues specific to colonisation’s ongoing damages. Hopefully the signs at marches don't always rely on ovaries and biological things, there are really valid criticisms made by trans and intersex people that this is a fight we should all be in together and that those are exclusionary. Hopefully this next review in Queensland comes good. Hopefully the government finally acts on the Respect at Work report, by Kate Jenkins. Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully.
Bri, thank you for your time.
Thank you for having me.
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Also in the news today:
Large parts of New South Wales have been impacted by heavy rain and flooding, forcing residents in some towns and suburbs to evacuate. Most of the flood warnings were focused on the mid-north coast of the state, and parts of Western Sydney. The rainfall is the result of an intense low pressure trough along the coast of New South Wales.
And another 6 million Australians are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine today as the rollout enters its next phase.
Those eligible for the vaccine now include people aged over 70, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 55 and over, and adults with qualifying underlying medical conditions.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.
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Last week’s march for justice highlighted how the justice system stacked against women, from the law, to the police, to the courts. Today, Bri Lee on the barriers to justice, and the steps being taken to reform the system.
Guest: Lawyer and writer for The Saturday Paper Bri Lee.
Between here and justice in The Saturday Paper
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Elle Marsh, Atticus Bastow, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard.
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.
New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.
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