Women fed up with flagrant sexism could swing Australia’s election

Women in Australia have endured more than a year of shocking allegations of misconduct from inside their nation’s Parliament revealing a culture that has normalized sexual violence and humiliation.

Now they’re set to channel months of simmering rage at the ballot box.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government is trailing in polls ahead of a May 21 election, a slump that started around February last year when former staffer Brittany Higgins alleged that she was raped in Parliament House. In a trend that should rattle the Liberal-National coalition, the decline has been largely and steadily driven by female voters.

Data from pollsters Roy Morgan exclusive to Bloomberg shows a clear divergence in voting intentions between men and women since early 2021. The gap in female support for the two main parties has more than doubled to 16 percentage points, in favor of the opposition Labor party. While a majority of male voters are also supporting Labor, the gap is just 3 percentage points.

“I really do firmly believe that this election will be determined by women,” said Janine Hendry, the academic and businesswoman who organized marches that were attended by more than 110,000 people across Australia in the wake of the rape scandal and other reports of sexual assault by men in power. “We’re now talking about inequality, we’re talking about the gender pay gap, we’re talking about gendered violence openly and as such, more and more women are realizing that gender equality in Australia is declining.”

The election lands a decade after Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard called out then-rival Tony Abbott in her so-called misogyny speech that resonated across the world, but failed to stop the country from voting her party out the following year. Little has since improved for the nation’s women, amid a culture of tolerated sexism from company boardrooms to the offices of Parliament. But gender could now be a key factor in the toppling of a government that holds power by just one seat.

Men and women globally appear to be increasingly at odds politically. In the U.S., the voting gap has surged to 33 points, with Republicans having an 18-point lead among men and Democrats a 15-point edge among women, according to an NBC News poll. Research prior to last weekend’s French election suggested the gap was surprisingly reversing for the since-defeated nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, with more women than men showing support for her.

“The treatment of women has definitely impacted my voting choice,” said 18-year-old Melbourne-based Cecilia Quinn, who plans to give her first-ever vote to Labor. “As a woman, I know exactly the culture that Australia continues to allow for its men, and I think that a really important place to solidify a culture of respecting and protecting women starts with its leadership.”

Being a woman in Australia has meant watching your prospects fade for more than a decade. In the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index, the country fell to 50th position last year from No. 15 in 2006. When scored on economic participation and opportunity for women, it dropped from 12th in the world to No. 70 over the same period — one rank behind China. That’s despite Australian women sharing the global top spot for educational attainment both in 2006 and today.

The blame can’t be piled onto one leader or government: The Labor party was in power from 2007 to 2013. But it’s largely over the course of Morrison’s tenure and the explosion of the global #MeToo movement that Australia has faced a reckoning over gender equity, brought to the fore amid a rash of allegations and scandals implicating a number of men in the highest seats of power.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes a statement at a U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1. Morrison’s conservative government is trailing in polls ahead of a May 21 election, a slump that started around February last year when former staffer Brittany Higgins alleged that she was raped in Parliament House. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes a statement at a U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1. Morrison’s conservative government is trailing in polls ahead of a May 21 election, a slump that started around February last year when former staffer Brittany Higgins alleged that she was raped in Parliament House. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

A fire was sparked on Jan. 25, 2021 when Grace Tame, an advocate for sexual assault survivors who was abused by her high school teacher, was presented with the Australian of the Year award by Morrison. It would prove to be a rare cordial meeting as the then 26-year-old quickly became a thorn in the prime minister’s side. Shortly after Tame’s powerful acceptance speech on institutionalized sexual abuse, Higgins was inspired to go public with allegations that she was raped in Parliament House.

“Something cracked in the ether, someone went a step too far,” 80-year-old Wendy McCarthy, Australian businesswoman and long-time champion of women’s rights, said in an interview. Higgins and Tame “changed the conversation around the safety of women like a bolt of lightning.”

Morrison initially had difficulty handling Higgins’s claim, suggesting that his wife helped him empathize after she asked him to consider how he would feel if one of their daughters was a victim. Public outrage was then compounded by a series of allegations against high-profile men in the following months, including two Liberal Party lawmakers. Videos surfaced of a government worker masturbating on the desk of a female lawmaker.

The government commissioned a report revealing that one in three staffers in federal Parliament had been sexually harassed, while just over half had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault. It has struggled to win back female voters since.

In last month’s budget that was widely seen as a pre-election cash splash, the government sought to woo Australian women by setting aside 2.1 billion Australian dollars ($1.5 billion) for policies to improve their well-being. In an interview, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said that signaled the government’s ongoing commitment to addressing gender issues.

“We are working hard to advance women’s safety, women’s health and women’s economic security,” he said.

The people performing that work are overwhelmingly men. In the coalition government, less than a third of elected representatives from the Liberal and National parties are female. Women comprise about 47% of Labor’s members of Parliament, which has implemented gender quotas since 1994. The LNP coalition maintains that it believes in choosing the best person for the job rather than using quotas.

Australia’s Minister for Women Marise Payne, one of eight female members of Morrison’s 24-strong cabinet, didn’t respond to emailed questions.

Speaking last month on national radio, Payne said the government had made solid progress in improving the lives of Australian women, including through narrowing the gender pay gap and improving women’s safety.

“I think that gender is going to play a really prominent in how people decide who to vote for,” political scientist Zareh Ghazarian said in an interview. “That could change their vote, and this election. Now, where their vote goes is another question.”

While Labor may be enjoying an advantage over the government on a two-party preferred basis, the outlook is less clear when accounting for all parties contesting next month’s election. More than a dozen independent female candidates have entered the race, inspired by issues such as climate and gender, and may have a good chance of swaying the vote. Some 13% of respondents plan to vote for independents, according to the latest Roy Morgan poll data.

“The coalition has to hold onto every single one of its seats to have a chance of winning. And that’s really, really hard for any party who’s been in government for three terms and going for its fourth,” said Ghazarian, who also noted that Labor doesn’t necessarily have an easy path ahead.

Indeed, the opposition has its own share of of scandals and allegations of assault and harassment. Support for Labor was recently dented in the wake of the sudden death of former senator Kimberley Kitching from a suspected heart attack, as three of the party’s most senior women were accused of bullying her.

“Neither of the parties has an outstanding record,” said McCarthy, who advised former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser on policy issues affecting women in the late 1970s. “The whole atmosphere and the whole infrastructure in Parliament House is still demeaning and belittling and quite unsafe for women.”

Natasha Stott Despoja, who became the country’s youngest female lawmaker at age 26, describes Australia’s Parliament as being a “toxic” workplace when she was first elected as a senator in 1995. She has since become a global advocate for the rights of women and children.

“There was barely a day when I walked into the Senate and an older man next to me wouldn’t say, oh, ‘your legs look good in that dress’ or ‘why don’t you wear skirts more often?’” Stott Despoja said in an interview. “And all of those things which I encountered, I thought would have been obliterated by now — in some ways they’ve been magnified and worsened.”

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