Jamie Briggs, former Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, resigned from his ministerial portfolio last week. Jamie Briggs harassed a young woman, who most likely felt particularly vulnerable and scared due to her subordinate position in their workplace, and who was not reciprocating his advances. He told her that she had “piercing eyes” – I can only imagine him doing so unnecessarily close to her face, flagrantly impinging on her personal space. He put his arm around her waist. He tried to kiss her neck. All intimate actions, all unwanted, all performed regardless. But this is not why Jamie Briggs resigned. He resigned because he was caught, because the woman he harassed reported him – I don’t want to speculate, but I’d hedge a pretty strong bet that this isn’t the first time he’s done something like this in his life. Unlucky for him on this occasion, the woman he chose as his victim – the woman whose intimacy and bodily autonomy he offended – wasn’t having a bar of it.
Briggs’ final words were unsurprisingly subpar. In his personal statement upon his resignation, he said that, “At the conclusion of the dinner, which I paid for personally…”. Hold up Jamie – what? I’m assuming this was to let us all know that you – being the great guy that you are – paid for the woman you later went on to sexually harass over dinner. You paying for her dinner didn’t give you the right to put your arm around her waist and kiss her neck. This unnecessary but informative comment can only be taken as another prime example of not only the fact that this guy just doesn’t get it, but also another feeble attempt to detract blame and responsibility from himself and minimise the experience of the woman he inappropriately harassed.
Briggs also said that, “At no point was it my intention to act inappropriately. This was an error of professional judgement.” Briggs may not have gone intentionally out of his way to act inappropriately, but he did so. With a drink in his hand, dimmed lighting, and a female in front of him (with his wife not in the room) – coupled with a deep-seated feeling of entitlement and a total lack of respect and utter disregard for what she wanted (to not be harassed).
What is even more disheartening is Turnbull’s feebly inadequate response, with bland statements like, “His conduct did not live up to the standard required of ministers.” Is that all Turnbull has to say? As the Prime Minister of this country – one who only mere months ago made many promises about genuine investment in reducing rates of violence against women under his government – surely more needs to be said. I want to see Turnbull standing up and saying that this behaviour – by a minister in his Cabinet, by any man in Australia – and any instance of sexism is not acceptable. Turnbull has a responsibility and an obligation to do this, but he’s fallen short. We’ll see how PM Malcom, who is like, soo progressive and such a great ally for women, continues after this disappointing display of silence.
The Australian reported that some MPs are unsettled by Briggs’ resignation, worrying that it will set a precedent of ministerial behaviour that is “impossibly high.” Personally, I believe that setting the bar of appropriate behaviour at not sexually harassing women is one that is not particularly hard to hit. But if you’re struggling I’ll tell you where to start. Number one – don’t touch women without their permission. There is no number two. We’ll just establish that benchmark. Is that okay?
When the allegations of this misconduct came to light, Briggs’ colleagues, all unsurprisingly male, came to his immediate defence, maintaining his honour and joining the discourse that minimises women’s lived experiences and attempts to deny the absolutely obvious institutionalised sexism that exists at all levels of Australian society, particularly within our political sphere. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said that he was “very sad for my good friend Jamie… I know him as a decent, hard working and capable contributor to our cause. He has much to contribute”; while Queensland MP Ewen Jones averred, “Briggs will be back. Cream always rises. A good man and a better bloke.” Ah, yes, poor Jamie. Don’t these comments ring a bell? Woe is the privileged, white male in a position of considerable power who is being unfairly treated after he [insert sexist/misogynistic/illegal actions towards women here]. Well I’m not sad for Jamie. Jamie isn’t a good guy – and it’s not just because he’s got a wife and three kids (nice).
Jamie Briggs is a symbol of a broader and deeply ingrained culture of misogyny and sexism that runs rife in Australia. It is a culture that is pernicious and insidious in nature – so much so that it is nearly invisible. This is not a trivial matter. This instance runs so much deeper – encapsulating every single woman who I know has been violated in some way by a man, has had their bodily autonomy compromised or their personal space invaded by a man who felt entitled to do so, and that so many women feel utterly powerless to stop it, or so dismally disheartened in knowing that it will not be the last time.
This happens because of the attitudes that circulate at all levels within our society. These attitudes have direct implications for more than the people involved in incidents such as these. For example, we know that these attitudes towards women have direct links with domestic violence. We know that they are a cause and contributor to the perpetually high levels of gendered violence that kills more women than any other type of homicide category in Australia. Briggs joined Turnbull last year in his grand, public gestures that condemned domestic violence and pledged to stop it. And yet, here we are looking at another man who does one thing in public and another in what he thought was private – actively participating in the culture that allows these rates of domestic violence to flourish and attitudes that fuel them to embed themselves within the floorboards of society.
There is only one way to look at this. Nothing will change for women – our rights, our status, our power, our ability to live lives free of violence and terror from men – until instances like this not only ideally stop, but that when and if they happen, they are taken seriously and condemned to the fullest extent.
So no, don’t tell me to calm down and that it’s not a big deal. Don’t tell me that Briggs is a good man who made a mistake and I’m just a feminist making a fuss over nothing. It’s not nothing. This behaviour, comments and examples form an undercurrent that is constantly bubbling underneath the collective consciousness. It attacks us from above and below. It’s suffocating, debilitating, exhausting, and deadly. Jamie, you may have not done anything illegal, but what you did was harmful – not just to you, your wife, your children, the young girl you harassed, but to every woman that lives in Australia. You hurt them too.
Words By Cailin Molinari