This week, former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ claims of sexual assault shocked the nation, and placed Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his staff under sustained, uncomfortable scrutiny. Every day brought new revelations and denials of who knew what, and when, and more calls for the culture of politics to change.
One women who knows more than almost anyone about the need for change is Dhanya Mani, 27, another former Liberal staffer who claims she, too, was assaulted by a colleague.
In 2015, Dhanya says that a fellow staffer came to her house, forced himself on her, tried to undo her jeans and started masturbating. “I couldn’t do anything else because my mind just became entirely empty and I was just really afraid because he was on top of me,” she told Fairfax in a report 18 months ago. “At one point he put his hands around my neck and started choking me.”
Like Brittany, Dhanya agonised over whether she should speak publicly about her alleged ordeal. Eventually, in July 2019, she and another former staffer, Chelsey Potter, decided to tell their stories. They even set up a campaign — Changing Our Headline — to agitate for change.
But after the flurry of sensational headlines and politicians’ promises of reform… nothing really happened, and Dhanya continued to be approached by women sharing their stories of harassment.
As she has written elsewhere today: “Has anything changed since I told my story? No.
Are women safe working in our country’s parliaments? No.”
Dhanya agonised over whether to speak publicly
There’s an emotional cost to advocacy, and Dhanya feels an acute responsibility towards the people who reach out to her for help. “Even setting aside what happened to me, there’s all the emotions wrapped up in the responsibility I feel to support them,” she told PRIMER in an interview this week. “I’ve faced difficulty doing that, and in struggling to be heard.
“What I’d like to say to Brittany is that I’m sorry that this has been so hard to advocate on, and that I couldn’t change things quickly enough so that you didn’t have to go through this.”
There has long been debate about why so few women pursue a political career. Representation is improving, but we’re still a long way from parity: Only 35 per cent of members of the House of Representatives in Australia are female; the Senate fares slightly better at 42 per cent. (Scott Morrison has seven women in his cabinet — a record-high number.)
Previously, attention has focussed on the trolling and abuse of women in politics, and the effect of politics on family life. But what Dhanya, Chelsey and Brittany’s claims illustrate is the toxic environment for young women at the start of their careers, and the lack of formal, and informal, support available to them if they encounter issues of harassment and assault at work.
“I’ve received a number of distressing disclosures since [Brittany’s] story was published,” says Dhanya. “They’re absolutely horrifying. They are [from] people who are members of political parties, or public servants, or people who work for large corporations. The common thread is predominantly white, empowered men having a legislative support base to do whatever they want, without any consequence of any kind.
“It’s quite interesting that basically in every single case the person has tried to make a complaint [yet] we often see this response from all the major parties that we didn’t know this was a problem.”
I’m sorry I couldn’t change things quickly enough
For legal reasons, Dhanya has not publicly identified her alleged attacker, but her decision was also influenced by the desire to keep the focus on her story, rather than his.
After Brittany made her allegations at the start of this week, the media’s focus shifted quickly to what the Prime Minister and his staff knew, and when. Obviously, the question of prior knowledge is important, says Dhanya, but it also reduces our attention on the allegations themselves, and the issues they raise about attitudes to women in politics.
“Media generally focusses on the actions of high-profile men who are associated with the case, what their actions may or may not have been, and how that reflects on our understanding of their character,” she observes acidly. “Women seem to fade from their own stories.”
After Dhanya’s alleged assault, she says she made a complaint to senior colleagues, which wasn’t followed up beyond an initial phone call. Another senior colleague later informed her that there was no procedure in place to help staffers. If she wanted to take matters further, she was told, she could go to the police.
As a lawyer, Dhanya knew what lay ahead if she decided to make a police complaint. “I have a background in criminal law and I’ve seen how women are treated,” she says. “A survivor doesn’t have any agency over how a prosecution operates… I couldn’t see how entering into that process would be healing for me in any way at all.”
Both Chelsey and Brittany were also reluctant to make a complaint about their alleged attacks, fearful of the effect that speaking out would have on their career. For Brittany, working in Canberra was her “dream job”.
Women seem to fade from their own stories
Most young political staffers working at state or federal level are interested in pursuing a career in politics. “They are chosen on the basis they have a lot of potential and are interested in contributing to political life,” says Dhanya. “It’s an attempt to create some kind of talent pipeline, but it’s at this point that you see countless women dropping out because of these issues.
“Either they see these things happening around them, or they’ve experienced, to some degree, bullying, sexual harassment or coercion every day at work. We scratch our heads and ask why there are so few female parliamentarians, and it’s because all the women in the pipeline are scared away. [Those in positions of power] are not prepared to have difficult conversations, make any sacrifices or surrender any power to make it a safe place to work.”
The employment conditions of political staffers are covered by the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, which provides less protection for employees than legislation covering public servants. Parliamentarians can terminate staffers’ employment at any time, and there is no clear definition of what constitutes sexual harassment. There’s also no independent procedure to deal with complaints.
Given these difficulties, Dhanya believes the Act needs to be reformed – or scrapped – to bring it closer in line with other, more comprehensive legislation covering public servants – and that any review should be comprised of experts from outside parliament.
The Prime Minister’s “cultural review” to improve the treatment of women in parliament is being led by Liberal MP Celia Hammond and his department’s deputy secretary, Stephanie Foster, is leading a review of the complaints process.
“At a really basic level, there needs to be an understanding that women deserve dignity and respect,” says Dhanya. “It’s quite sad that the state of politics is such that there doesn’t seem to be any true acceptance of the fact that the trauma of women matters, very much.”
After leaving her role as a staffer, Dhanya returned to legal work while continuing her advocacy. “I really struggle to admit that I haven’t found it easy, because I care about the advocacy and I feel honoured by the trust, and the work is extremely important to me, but it’s just so hard. Sometimes I feel that I’m letting women down by even admitting that it is difficult to bear.”
But despite this, Dhanya says doesn’t regret her decision to share her story. “Life isn’t really the same, once you do something like this, but the big thing I’ve always kept in mind is that I’ve always tried to live honestly and in accordance with my principles,” she says. “I’d rather make decisions that are risky, but which I’m proud of, than play it safe and look back with regret that I didn’t respect myself.”
Photo credit: Hellene Algie