Dhanya Mani’s message to Prime Minister on sexual assault in Parliament

The Australian Greens MPs

[Senator Waters’ speech to the Senate on the Parliamentary Workplace Reform (Set the Standard Measures No. 1) Bill 2022]

The Greens support this Bill as a tiny step in the right direction by implementing two recommendations of the Set the Standards report. There is still so much more to do, but this is a start.

These amendments will prevent staff being arbitrarily fired for no reason other than that they have become a political problem from their employer. We know the sweeping powers of parliamentarians to fire staff without cause has been a significant barrier for staff to come forward, fearing their job – not the job of their abuser – would be at risk.

We know that this change alone will not change the culture of shaming and silencing that stops staff coming forward. That cultural shift requires full implementation of Set the Standards recommendations – a robust, independent and well-resourced complaints process, trauma-informed training for all parliamentarians and senior staff, a Code of conduct with meaningful options to sanction abusers and those who facilitate or ignore abuse, and genuine work for a more inclusive and representative parliament and parliamentary workforce.

The Bill makes clear that all parliamentarians have obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act to provide a safe workplace. We welcome that. But the [email protected] report could not have been clearer that those obligations are not enough to protect staff against harassment, bullying, and assault. What is needed, in this workplace and all others, is a positive duty on officers to ensure staff are safe, where there is a zero tolerance policy in action, not just in words, and where appropriate support is available.

A positive duty was the foundation of the [email protected] recommendations for making workplaces safe. Without that duty, other reforms are built on very shaky ground.

The government voted against amendments moved by myself and Senator McAllister last year to introduce a positive duty. Despite vague assurances that they are working on it, we are yet to see progress on a positive duty. I have no confidence that Australian workers will get that protection before the election.

We will continue to push for a positive duty so that every worker in every workplace can feel safe and respected.

The final thing this Bill does is to ensure that MOPS Act staff are covered by the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. This is an important reminder that the abuse detailed in Set the Standards report was extensive. The attention has been on sexual harassment and assault, but we must not ignore the reports of racism, ableism, ageism, classism in this place. People of colour, people with disability, older women have all reported that their harassment was compounded by discrimination, that they were targeted more, believed and supported less, and too often driven from this workplace.

We cannot look around this room and pretend that we don’t have a representation problem.

We know the faces of Rachelle Miller, Chesley Potter, Brittany Higgins, Josie Coles, Saxon Mullins, Chanel Contos, Grace Tame. We know these courageous women, not because they are the only ones who have been abused. Not because they are the only ones who have come forward. But because they look most like people we know, that we can identify with.

This does not diminish in any way the significance of their experience or the importance of them coming forward. The fact that these women came forward is a key reason that we are even having this discussion today.

But, as each of these women has themselves acknowledged. As Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame said in their phenomenal address yesterday. As Amy Remeikis has said so eloquently so many times. So many survivors are missing from the public conversation because they don’t look like me. That has to change.

Today I want to share a story that should remind us all WHY this legislation, and immediate action to implement Set the Standards in full, is needed.

A NSW parliamentary staffer assaulted his colleague, Dhanya Mani, in 2015. The assault happened after many months of harassment, which she’d reported to her supervisors and been repeatedly told that she was overreacting, that he just had a bit of a crush, and “maybe she should just go out with him”. Then he violently assaulted her.

For reasons familiar to so many survivors, particularly women of colour, she didn’t make a police report – fearing that she would not be believed, that her name would be made public, that it would affect her job and reputation, that only SHE would suffer the consequences, that the justice system would not deliver her justice.

Instead, she made complaints through her work and her political party, and was largely ignored, placated, passed on. Meanwhile her abuser continued to work in a senior role in the party.

She and Chelsey Potter told their stories to the media in July 2019 and founded a non-partisan movement for survivors called ‘Changing Our Headline’, later renamed ‘Kate’s List’ in honour of the women who alleges Christian Porter raped her.

Through that movement, they heard story after story from women working in State and Federal politics about abuse and harassment, and the lack of support when they reported that abuse.

In 2019, Dhanya phoned the Prime Minister’s office. She explained that, through Kate’s List, she had received many complaints from women in Federal parliament, including in the Liberal party, who had been harassed and abused. Each of those women had confided in a senior person with power to resolve their complaint or followed formal complaint mechanisms. None of the women felt that they had really been heard or that there had been consequences for their abusers.

Dhanya contacted the Prime Minister seeking two things:

  • support to elevate a resolution of her own complaints, after they had stalled in the NSW Liberal party and the NSW Premier’s office,
  • a meeting to discuss the complaints from women working in the federal Liberal party and what the PM and the party could do to avoid any other staffers suffering as Dhanya, Chelsey, and all those who had shared their stories had.

She was raising concerns on behalf of current and former political staff from all major political parties in Australia. Lots of them. She was reaching out to the Prime Minister, trying to offer constructive advice about how to lift the standards within his own party. She was sharing her own trauma to help prevent others from having to experience it.

The response was telling. The Prime Minister’s private secretary, Yaron Finklestein, contacted her and suggested it was not a matter for the Prime Minister. He maintained that the existing processes were working well. He refused to facilitate a meeting with the PM – instead suggesting that she write his office a letter. He obfuscated. He declined to provide an email address. He said that he would call back the next day. She never heard back.

Dhanya spoke with the 730 Report in late February 2021 about her experience in trying to raise issues with the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO denied that Dhanya had mentioned complaints in Federal parliament to Mr Finklestein. I have listened to a recording of that conversation and heard Dhanya repeatedly, categorically talk about those complaints and her hope to meet with the Prime Minister to discuss them.

It is just more of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach that we’ve heard so much of in this parliament. Pretend it isn’t happening, gaslight and belittle those who come forward, background against them if you have to.

That wilful disregard for survivors is why a toxic culture has persisted in this place for so long. They all knew it was happening. They just didn’t care enough to make it stop.

Dhanya wrote to the Prime Minister in February 2021, in the week following Brittany Higgins coming forward, to again seek a meeting to discuss complaints she had received and recommendations for reform. She did not hear back.

Dhanya wrote again to the Prime Minister in April 2021 and said in her previous letter:

I detailed to you my own personal experiences of sexual misconduct. I explained the steps I took to seek justice and assistance. I explained that I had approached your senior aide, Yaron Finkelstein for help. I summarised two years of research, advocacy and work on behalf of survivors of sexual crime, harassment, abuse, bullying and other serious misconduct in Parliament – and in Australia’s workplaces more broadly. I took the time to write to you because I am passionate about creating change, and will never stop fighting for survivors.

I requested a response from you… I have not received any acknowledgment from your office. This is unacceptable.

Dhanya did not receive a response to that letter, either. She was not invited to attend the statement of acknowledgement on Tuesday.

Dhanya’s experience is a stark reminder of the damage that a toxic, misogynistic culture that disregards harassment and abuse can cause. It shows how futile efforts to bring concerns to those in power have been for so long. They knew. They didn’t care.

Thankfully, we are now starting to see action. This is because of the strength of women like Dhanya, Tessa Sullivan, Chelsey Potter, Rachelle Miller, Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and others, and it is despite the barriers that powerful men have tried to put in their way.

Dhanya has asked for me to share a message with you about what she hopes you take away from her story today:

Earlier this week, there was an “apology” delivered by Scott Morrison to survivors of sexual abuse in politics. He spoke about the power of apologies to create reform and change. That statement is true. It just does not apply to his offensive and whitewashed excuse for an apology. Scott Morrison not only failed to genuinely consult, or consider survivors in the wording of his apology – he rewrote and whitewashed Australian feminist history in the process. Tessa Sullivan – a woman of colour who was the first to tell her story of sexual violence in politics when the #MeToo movement began to gain ground in Australia in early 2018 inspired me to speak out, yet many Australians fail to recognise we would not be here without her.

I continued Tessa’s work, launching my campaign Kate’s List when I told my story. My campaign was – and remains – designed to support survivors and end sexual violence in Australian politics and workplaces. Yet women like myself and Tessa are largely erased from media commentary, culture and history. Even now in 2022, after the lessons of #MeToo, politicians and the mainstream media almost solely centre the stories of cis-gender, able-bodied and conventionally attractive white women at the expense of all other voices.

But this cultural moment of reckoning in Australian politics and feminism is built on the sacrifice, advocacy and unpaid labour of women of colour like me. Like Tessa. We came first.

Failing to acknowledge the labour of CALD women sends a message: sexual violence and other forms of abuse only impact white women. But we know that these crimes disproportionately impact CALD and First Nations women. In a country in which colonisation is ongoing, we cannot allow this distorted and incomplete picture to form the sole foundation for the Australian public’s understanding of male violence against women.

If this Parliament fails to act, it is tacitly endorsing and aggravating impenetrable barriers to equality for diverse, minority-identifying Australians.

This country cannot achieve inclusive, healthy progress for women in political life until and unless we can start recognising and validating the vital work of women of colour and First Nations women in making opportunities for feminist cultural reckoning and reform possible.

This speech is for all minority women, and women of colour, who do not feel seen in political life. I’ll keep fighting for us. I deserve to be seen. Tessa deserves to be seen. You deserve to be seen. This historic moment belongs to us, too. I will not stop until skin colour and minority status do not determine whether we are acknowledged, whether we are recognised by politicians and the media, and whether cultural and historic milestones built on our advocacy and labour belong to us.

This Bill is the first tiny step in the right direction. It FINALLY does some of the things that Dhanya and others have been asking the government to do for years.

The Greens will work to ensure that this parliament urgently takes the rest of the steps needed to really turn things around and make parliamentary workplaces, all workplaces, safe, equal, inclusive, and respectful.

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