On July 29, authors Susie Allanson and Lizzie O’Shea join Hugh de Kretser (CEO, Human Rights Law Centre) and moderator Santilla Chingaipe to share their story of the fight for safe access zones around abortion clinics. It is a powerful tale about how the murder of a security guard sparked reform around reproductive health and safety.
“In a world where victories for progressive causes are often few and far between and campaigns for women, for their reproductive rights and to prevent violence against women, are even harder to win, ours is a precious triumph. It is a triumph and deserves to be claimed and proclaimed loudly. But the fight for women’s rights, especially sexual and reproductive rights, requires eternal vigilance.”
Watch the video and read the transcript below:
SANTILLA: Okay. I think we will begin while some people come streaming in. My name is Santilla Chingaipe. I will be moderating the session today. Before we begin I’m moderating this conversation on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. (Acknowledgement of country). There can be no gender equity without racial justice and there can be no racial justice without First Nations justice. Always will be.
The conversation we’re about to have will include things that some audience members might find triggering. Please feel free to take time out if you need to. As Simone Bials taught us this week, we need to prioritise our mental health. Support services are available if you need them. The VWT have popped details in the link. Please feel free to take time out should you need it.
All right. So we’re going to jump straight into the conversation. I’m going to introduce our panel beginning with Dr Susie Allanson who was a clinical psychologist for more than 35 years. 26 of those years were at the Fertility Control Clinic including when the clinic’s security guard was murdered. She led the campaign for safe access to abortion, in addition to writing the book we’ll be talking about. She’s the author of Murder on his Mind. Hi Susie. We’ve also got Liz O’Shea. She is a lawyer and writer. Her commentary is featured regularly on television news programs and radio…to stop the harassment of staff and patients…she is also the author of Future Histories. Welcome, Lizzie. Last but definitely not least is Hugh de Kretser…Sentencing Advisory Council and a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Melbourne Law School. He has previously served as Commissioner of the Victorian Law Reform Commission. A board member of the national association…for people navigating the Royal Commission into…welcome, Hugh. Just to let everyone know that this event does feature closed captioning. That is also available and we will be opening it up to the audience. Please feel free to pop your questions into the Q&A function of Zoom. I will direct any of the questions to our panellists. All right. So today’s event coincides with the 20th anniversary of the murder of fertility clinic security guard Steve Rogers by an antiabortion fanatic and coincides with the launch of the book. I sort of thought that perhaps we could start there. I’ll start with you, Susie. Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances that led to the murder of Steve Rogers?
SUSIE: Look, I think the circumstances relate to our situation as being at that time the largest private abortion provider in Melbourne. Originally set up by Bertram Wainer who was an abortion rights campaigner. On the public footpath outside the clinic everyday there was a group of antiabortion extremists. They would harass women. Shame women as they were entering the clinic. Women couldn’t avoid being confronted by them. Their tactics were really extreme. Their rhetoric was really extreme. They called us murderers and we were a slaughter house. It was very graphic. So the man who decided to come in and wanted to annihilate the whole place. He was a loner. He was just carrying that rhetoric to its logical conclusion really. So that day it was a normal Monday. He came into reception. Our security guard happened to be about to leave then. He shot Steve, two of the partners of women tackled him to the ground. So it was really devastating for staff who responded really well. After that, of course, it was on the front page. The clinic had always been very unhappy about the situation at the front because it was distressing to our patients and to staff. But nobody seemed to – no-one in authority seemed to think it was an issue. We didn’t want to draw more attention to the clinic or make things even worse by going public about our concerns. Lou Ratman our medical Director had got all sorts of medical advice but it was always very pessimistic we couldn’t do anything to remove them. We knew overseas they had bubble zones or safe access zones. That’s what we ideally wanted. Anyway, after the shooting we decided, right, we have to speak out. It can’t get any worse than this. So we just have to speak out.
SANTILLA: Lizzie, if I can come to you. What was the public response to this shooting at the time?
LIZZIE: It’s funny that you should ask me actually because I’ve spoken to Susie about this. I was just starting out in law school, long before I met Susie. I remember the day it happened. I was actually at a feminist activist conference. My time at university was pretty chock full of activism. I remember us talking about this. I think it’s almost difficult to imagine something like this happening today which is partly why I think this is a really important story. There was still at the time I think a lot of stigma around abortion. A sense that this may be something that happens at abortion clinics. It’s something we can safely ignore. There was still, I think, a tolerance that women should have to run this kind of gauntlet in order to get access to reproductive healthcare. I mean, I do think the murder was a turning point. But I do think it is telling that it took a further really 2 decades to win reform and that it actually took a concerted effort. Looking back on the 2 decades I think it’s important to remember lots of people worked together to work together and organise. They used this as a turning point particularly and start looking outwards and working with others to try and reform the laws that applied. To better protect women. I’ve talked to Susie about this. One of the clinics does really well is provide a safe environment for women. The healthcare they provide is centred around respecting women’s autonomy and rights. This is an instance where they pervaded that space. Even if you’re providing good healthcare, the absence of laws for those providing that healthcare means you can’t do your job properly as a healthcare provider. That outward focus for the clinic was really important. It started a long journey of reform that pulled in lots of people that made the movement powerful.
SANTILLA: That’s interesting what you said about it’s hard to imagine anything like that happening today. You’re absolutely right. It’s hard to imagine that this could happen in this day and age. If I can ask you, Hugh. You write in the book, you say that this was the story of ultimate victory. Also the failures of many male dominated institutions to protect women’s rights. I wondered in terms of the legal battle that then ensued. Lizzie talked about a two decade battle. That’s a very long time to see some kind of change. If you could just talk to us about the process of bringing this case to the forefront. Then ultimately changing things.
HUGH: Sure. It’s much longer than two decades. This is a centuries long battle. The victories – you know, why I love the book is because the Human Rights Law Centre came to this story late in the piece. Susie rang my colleague Emily Howie and asked for help. Susie can tell the story of how and why she called Emily. So my involvement, you know, I joined the centre as Executive Director in 2013. That’s when I started engaging with these issues. There’s such a long and powerful history well before then. That’s why I loved reading this book. It laid out all of the failures to that point. When I look back at the murder of Steve Rogers. It’s, like, how did that not spark change. I couldn’t comprehend it when we’re doing this work around safe access zones and abortion decriminalisation. Not just in Victoria but around Australia. For me what really struck me when I read the book is just the continued failures of male dominated power structures, if you like, to deliver justice for women. And the fact that when those structures change, when you saw women in power in politics, in journalism, in the law. That was one of the keys to changing this because the case that we ran with Lizzie and Maurice Blackburn was one that could have been run a decade ago. It could have been run 20 years ago. It would have failed by the way I think in 2015. It was that case which we’re able to shine a spotlight on the issue, engage with partners, women’s rights organisations. With friendly politicians and raise it in parliament. That’s where we got the eventual victory. For me, yeah, it was stark – all the failures up to that point. That’s why I love about the book. It’s the analysis it gives about that multigenerational fight for justice and some of the reasons it hadn’t been achieved before. Also why we need to be – can’t take it for granted. Why we constantly need to be vigilant about these issues.
SANTILLA: Susie, one of the things I was struck by when I was reading the book was this sense of when we talk about misogyny it’s always seen as talking about women’s issues. That men aren’t impacted by it. One of the things that this book really highlights, for me anyway when I was reading it, was a sense that misogyny kills men too. It literally in this case did that. I wonder how useful this is in opening up this conversation around the implications of some of these power structures.
SUSIE: I think it absolutely opens all that up. For too long, as you say, it’s been women’s issues. Yet every man has a mum. They have women in their lives, sisters, aunties. We don’t understand why more men don’t stand up for women. It’s something that my own daughter, who is a lawyer and was involved in this campaign, struggled with. I’ve struggled with too. So I think we’ve got a lot of consciousness raising to do. We only have to look at Federal politics to see that. But I think also with women, women need to continue in their own consciousness raising because we’re all washed in the same tub of misogyny. We really need to stop and question how things are done in our society and how could people turn a blind eye for so long at having women just completely shamed and harassed. You know, I think that’s where the High Court decision was such a victory. The High Court used similar language to what we had been developing. We had to develop a whole new language around abortion and around women deserving to have their privacy and their safety and their respect. Why weren’t we treating women well. The whole social discourse was rooted in this religious right, judgmental view of women who had abortions. Rather than the strength of women and that women, yes, it can be a crisis facing an unplanned pregnancy. It’s not necessarily a trauma. They know what they want. They can make their own decisions and they can get on with their life. So I think throughout the book, I think Lizzie and I have done a reasonably good job at highlighting the strengths of women. That our society has got to trust women more, rather than this belittling and shaming and men need to get with the program. You know, we saw in the High Court. We saw throughout the whole campaign. That women in positions of power brought a completely different viewpoint. They made their male colleagues curious about our point of view. They could see that women are competent. We have a great deal to offer. Yes. Look, there’s a huge amount to be done there. I feel like we’re just at the starting point there really.
SANTILLA: Lizzie, if I can come to you. One of the things I’m very fascinated by, and you touched on it earlier. The steps that were needed to create this reform that we now have. Susie just talked about the language that had to be changed. Can you unpack some of that for us a little bit. What was the language? How did it have to be changed? How was that then received when you were going through litigation.
LIZZIE: I think this is a really interesting case study and why I’m passionate about this story. This is a story in Susie’s first person voice and I really wanted to work with her on it. I felt there were really important lessons here. Mainly the lawyers, I’m a lawyer. I see this through the legal lens. If you’re a lawyer and using the law as a tool of social justice or if you’re an activist and you’re thinking about this as well. There’s some really important lessons here. One of the things that Susie did and we talk about it in the book is that she sought legal advice from lawyers before. They didn’t always understand the problem in the way that it was described by the clinic or appreciate that this is a question of the right of people to access – at that time a lawful health service. At that time we were talking about introducing safe access zones and limiting people’s capacity to harass staff and patients as they came and went from the clinic. At this time abortion is a…in 2008. We’re bringing this case in 2013, 14, 15. You know, this question becomes slightly different. It is by the time she gets to us. The human rights centre is an incredible resource for activists interested in using more of a tool for social change. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Susan’s first point of call was Emily through the human rights centre. She used lawyers who understood this was about women’s autonomy and respect for their rights. Then the framing of the cases around the toxic nuisance. The noxious nuisance in legal terms that is caused by having people harass staff and patients out the front of the clinic. So it’s not just about attacking or targeting individual people and saying, you don’t have a right to protest. This is not protest at all. This is a nuisance that causes harm to women who come and go from this clinic. So that framing changes. That’s what we took to the Supreme Court. Of course, we mentioned a few times, I was representing Susie when we lost the case. This is not a tale of legal victory for me by any stretch. I’m really proud of the case nonetheless because putting that to the court and saying here’s a nuisance that causes harm to people. It impedes their capacity to exercise their lawful right to reproductive healthcare. The court said no, that doesn’t work. What that means is it’s put squarely before the parliament as an issue that parliament now has to resolve. We’ve done everything we can to try and agitate this through the courts. Now it’s up to parliament to address the fact that these laws don’t adequately address the situation. Losses can eventually lead to victories. I still think litigation is a really important part of it. It can also help frame the discussion. Then you have a public debate. A lawful precedent that you can take to parliament and ask law makers with some weight to do their job. To change the law. To better respect women’s rights. So the framing is really important. Who you get to help you do that framing in court process is also critically important.
SANTILLA: If I can come to you, Hugh. Just following on from what Lizzie talked about. I’m interested in this idea of when Susie brings this to you at the human rights centre and the steps that are taken. We’re going to put up a legal challenge because we think there is something quite strong here.
HUGH: Susie saw an article that Emily Harry had written about an unrelated human rights issue. Susie thought, this is someone that can help. She rang Emily. We started exploring whether it was a case that we could take on. How we might do it. We pulled together a pro bono team working with – and by the way it was really hard to find pro bono firms to take this case on. It talks to the sort of stigmatisation of abortion. We’re really pleased that Maurice Blackburn took it on. Again, I think it was valuable for us as a Human Rights Law Centre and having that brand. Taking this case on and saying this is a rights issue for women. We will fight hard for the right to protest. The right to freedom of expression. This is not what’s at stake here. This is an issue of harassment and intimidation and privacy and safe access to health services. To the extent that it engages the right to freedom of expression. It is an absolutely lawful and reasonable limitation of that. That has been accepted in cases in Canada and the US. We pulled together a legal team and had a look at it. We thought there was a strong legal strategy to take the council on. To force the council to use these nuisance laws. The public health and well-being act that Lizzie talked about. Again, what I loved about the book was all the failed attempts to get the council, the police, state government to do something about this. We’re actually going to sue the council to force them to fix this nuisance. We lost the case. But what it forced the council to do was answer the question of what did they think about this issue. We’re in the bizarre circumstance where we lost a case. The court would normally order costs against the clinic. The council said, no, we take no joy in winning this case. We think there’s a real problem here. It’s just not our problem. The state government needs to do something about it. We’re not going to pursue costs against the clinic for bringing this case. Actually it was Robert Doyle at the time. Obviously his reputation is in tatters. The case forced him to respond to it in public. He said, I think what’s going on is appalling. It’s someone else’s problem to fix. As Lizzie said, that then shone the spotlight on parliament. Then it was a very collaborative effort working with advocacy groups to engage with parliamentarians and the stories in the book. It’s about the incredible role Fiona Patton and female parliamentarians parties. Joanna and… off the back of Fiona Patton’s private member’s bill.
SANTILLA: Wow. Before I ask you the question, Susie. I also want to remind the audience if you do have any questions for any one of our panellists, feel free to pop it into the Q&A function of Zoom. Susie, Hugh just touched on the fact that there was so many failed attempts in the course of the duration of all of this. I wonder, what impact has that had on you? You’ve been dealing with this for 30 years, something close to that. What kept you going? All of the other people directly involved in this. What kept you going?
SUSIE: I think what kept me going was being so closely involved with the women that came into the clinic. I could speak with them in a very intimate way about their lives. Knowing all that they would be carrying when they came into the clinic. Then to see there was this whole other layer, completely unnecessary that would tip them right over into real distress. I think keeping close to your base, whoever you were fighting for. To keep close to them is something that keeps you going. Our staff as well. We’re a bit more like family really. Yes, we felt under siege. We had staff members who would be absolutely furious. They would be in tears. To see staff members have coffee thrown over them. That’s not okay. There were just all sorts of things going on that were not okay. So I gave up plenty of times but it was never for very long. I always had staff saying, no, Susie, you’re doing well. Keep going. There would be the patients coming in who were distressed and saying, this is not right. So that would keep me going. As well as family. I think too, you know, the first step towards doing something about this. Everyone seemed to think it was about decriminalising abortion. I knew that that wouldn’t change. What was going on outside the front, we needed safe access zones. For many people they viewed that as a first step. As it turned out they were probably right. But getting involved in the abortion decriminalisation, it linked me in to some really smart savvy women that knew what they were doing. They were incredibly supportive. I could always contact them. Women’s health Victoria. They spear headed the de crim. Following on from that, and that was all successful in 2008. They then put together an abortion working group. So it’s having that support around you because failing is not fun. Hitting your head up against a brick wall is not fun. Being a quainty relevancy a term which I discovered in a book that Hugh recommended to me. That’s not fun. But then you find someone like Emily Howie who completely gets this. Then you find someone like Lizzie O’Shea who completely gets it. They’re not just going to get it, they’re going to run with it. To have barristers that were top notch in human rights and public health. They’re fighting for us. Really with the Supreme Court, I mean, I thought it was going to be a slam dunk. We were going in there, it was about protest versus women’s rights. You know, we had the Human Rights Law Centre. We had Maurice Blackburn. These are people who champion protest rights. I thought we would go in, yep, right, slam dunk. Look at who is representing you. Of course it wasn’t. Ultimately it was. Ultimately we got there.
SANTILLA: Me and many others are grateful you kept on pushing and fighting. Lizzie, you touched on earlier this idea that we couldn’t imagine this happening today. I’m interested in the community attitudes towards reproductive freedoms. I mean, is any of that shifting? Has it shifted? It still feels like there’s quite a bit of stigma around these issues when we’re talking about them.
LIZZIE: I think it’s a really interesting question. I think polls have been in favour of letting women make a choice themselves. I’m not sure. In that sense I think we’ve had a long period of time in which people would like that to be enshrined in law. It’s always been difficult, I suppose, to find the political capital available amongst our elected representatives to advance that cause. You know, it’s interesting, I think, today in the last 5 to 10 years we’ve seen a transformation across the country. In terms of reproductive healthcare rights. Decriminalisation of abortion in pretty much every state except I think in Western Australia, you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, and the introduction of safe access zones in multiple places. Even though it was presented in many ways in advocacy. Fiona Patton, she’s prepared to put her name on the line and draft a private member’s bill. With the court case that’s been made in the land of public opinion that the law needs to change because we can’t get relief in the courts. It prompts other parliamentarians to invest their political capital on this reform. In some ways it’s an interesting issue. It’s had a lot of popular support on many polls. People aren’t as concerned as you might suspect they would be, given how politicians talk about this. I think it’s also really interesting. I also happen to have an Irish citizen. I was living in the UK for a period when that campaign for reform was occurring. They obviously went through a process for removing the prohibition on abortion through a constitution of a public referendum. I think a lot of people thought that wasn’t possible. Somewhere like Ireland, a Catholic country. You would be able to get a majority support for it. I think it’s an interesting example. People went around to have chats with grannies, knocked on doors and talked to people. If you do this work of talking to every day people. You can build a large coalition of support. The last people to act tend to be politicians. I don’t mean to say that in a judgmental way. I think they’re doing their jobs. They’ve got their own limits of what they’re capable of and the right. I think if you’re not a parliamentarian. An activist, an advocate, a lawyer. There’s things you can do to make their job easier. I think that’s part of what this story is about. Showing that reform isn’t down to a small number of people. It’s down to a lot of different people working in a lot of different fields. It’s not natural and inevitable either. Just because you have the majority of support in the public when you get laws that reflect that as well. Those are important lessons to learn. That’s a document of our failures. That’s something to embrace and remember and be good about actually. That’s a point that allowed us to get to our success. In reading this book, if you’re butting up against a brick wall in your particular issue. Take heart a lot of difficulties you might face along the way may be helping you. Although it doesn’t feel like it at the time. Getting you to reform or get to a position where representatives do your job for you and create broad reform that might be already existing. It might be accepted by the community as an important change. You can contribute to building up that particular aspect of the campaign as well.
SANTILLA: Great advice there. I will come back to you on that one. I think you’ve touched on some really important bits. Hugh, coming to you. Lizzie just talked about safe access zones. What is the impact of safe access zones?
HUGH: Yeah. Susie’s best to answer that one. I’ll have a go. She saw it day in day out and I remember on the day the laws came into effect. I think Susie said, how is it? I think she said, delightfully peaceful or nothing happening out the front. It’s amazing for millions of women. The advocacy of Susie and so many other women has created safe and private access to reproductive health services off the back of Tasmania then Victoria. Working with partners across the country and amazing women lawyers like Emily, like Rachael Ball, Adrianne Walters, and our team. We’ve basically been able to get a wave of law reforms for every single jurisdiction in Australia has safe access zones…that’s a huge change from where we were in 2010ish. Abortion has been decriminalised across the country. A wave of law reform. NSW, QLD. Again, labour, liberal governments. South Australia, there are women across the political spectrum who are standing up for women’s rights and pursuing political reform. There has been this incredible momentum. What reading a book like Susie and Lizzie’s book does for me is provide a really important reminder of everything that has gone before. To reach that point where you can actually get that change. The book that Susie was talking about is John kingdom’s well-known book about, hey – I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s about what needs to happen in the political spectrum for there to be change. Basically the key take away is you need this policy window. You need this alignment to happen. You could be working for 10 years on an issue. 20 years on an issue doing incredible work. For reasons beyond your control you cannot achieve that change until you have that opportunity. When that opportunity arises if you have not done all that work for the previous 10 years and not put yourself in the position where you’re able to take advantage of that opportunity. Then you’ll miss out but you need to wait for that opportunity. Here we basically created that opportunity through Susie’s advocacy. Through the litigation with Maurice Blackburn. Putting that in the public domain and making it unavoidable for politicians to respond to. Forcing them to respond created that opportunity. Off the back of that, the High Court victory. We were able to create those opportunities and other jurisdictions and get this wave of reform. Let’s not pretend you kind of get the benefit of that at this end point of this reform cycle. There’s so much hard work that goes before. We see this in the LGBTIQ rights space. Marriage equality. One of our board members was fighting decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in the 70s. It’s those kind of reminders for someone like me coming to these issues late in the piece. They are so important and hopefully people draw hope from that when you’re at the early stages of a campaign and advocacy. That you go, man, we’re going to have a lot of failures before we reach success. Have hope because it’s people like Susie and Lizzie and others who do that advocacy that then create the opportunity for that change.
SUSIE: Could I just jump in there? I’m a great fan of lawyers and law makers. What happened as soon as the human rights law centre got involved and Maurice Blackburn. We gathered all this tremendous evidence. I got a little bit frustrated at times with the amount of evidence that was required and the format in which it had to be. It meant then when we got together with Fiona Patton. She was determined to get safe access zones across the line. That we had all this fabulous material that we could just hand on to all the parliamentarians. There was a heck of misinformation. It’s like big tobacco. It’s like the refugee scenario. It’s like climate denial. The antiabortion mob were just full of misinformation. We had evidence. We had solid evidence. We had anecdotal evidence. We had research evidence. We had observations, everything. So we were able to channel that in. So lawyers bring this capacity to – I mean it’s mind boggling for me. To see just how much – they must be just so organised which I am not. You know, it was fabulous. It was a complete turning point.
SANTILLA: Can you also just touch on a little anecdote that Hugh shared there. You talked about your calling him to describe what it was like once the legislation kicked in. The safe access zones were implemented. It sounds really fascinating. I’d love to hear more about what that change was like.
SUSIE: I think I was always really confident of what we knew about overseas. Our medical Director and I would discuss safe access zones. We knew that it would work. We were really – thank goodness it wasn’t pride before a fall. We really were confident that they would work. I think Lizzie wasn’t as sure. Emily wasn’t as sure that it would actually work. But overnight. I mean, as soon as those laws were enforced, they were not allowed to be there. They risked being jailed. Of course, that’s what happened with the breach when they decided to challenge the law on constitutional grounds. The challenge went all the way to the High Court. That was a very planned breach where the antiabortion, antiwomen organisations had put forward a woman, mother of 13 children, I think. To step in and breach the safe access zones law and be arrested.
SANTILLA: Lizzie, you talked before about some of the progress that’s been made in terms of protecting reproductive rights. I wonder, there’s clearly a certain level of vigilance that we need to have. We can’t take these things for granted. How do we safeguard these measures to ensure we don’t roll back on them.
LIZZIE: I think that’s a very important question. It’s one thing to have a right to have an abortion in… law. That’s what we have in Victoria and other states now. It’s quite another to guarantee access. I think it is interesting to compare it to, say, the United States. … was waived in the 70s. Guaranteed the right to abortion through a Supreme Court case. However, through nefarious, awful means, state legislatures have confined that right, namely through access. Putting so many restrictions on it it’s hard to provide the service meaningfully to really the vast majority of the country. Small parts of the country where abortion is readily accessible. Many women don’t have access to abortion, notwithstanding the Supreme Court has enshrined that right. I think it’s a salutary lesson for us the right is practically available to women to make use of. This is where I would like to see this future of this particular campaign go. It is very difficult still to access abortion in lots of parts of the country. Tasmania at one point didn’t have a provider. There’s advances being made in medicine, of course. You can obviously now access things like RU486 which allows you to have an abortion without medical intervention. That medication needs to be carefully managed. You need to have a supportive doctor to make sure you’re taking that in a safe way and are well supervised. QLD did have a couple prosecuted not too long ago for procuring an abortion when it was still criminalised in that state. She had taken 486 she had sent to her from overseas. I want to make sure women aren’t put into that position. Of course by prohibition law. I want to get to a point where lots and lots of doctors are providing that treatment in an accessible way. Especially outside of major cities. That’s something we can guarantee and provide to women. I think we still have work to do there. I think we need to improve the accessibility for this kind of treatment. Make sure the right to get these things refunded on Medicare is also protected. I think there are lots and lots of ways we need to be vigilant to avoid a situation in the States where essentially the right exists administratively are so prescribed. It makes it difficult to access. I would like to think one of the campaigns it has done is build that network. A living neural network of people who are in communication. Who know about these issues. Who are vigilant towards them. Who are prepared to advocate and speak out in favour of them. They exist in all sorts of spheres. So they’re activists, lawyers, also parliamentarians increasingly. One of the lawyers who worked on this for a very brief period or consulted on this is Terry Butler. She’s a principal of ours in QLD. She’s now a member of federal parliament which is great. Knowing these women have come through in the decriminalisation and safe access zones debate now sit in a position of power and we can call on them. Different kinds of power, not just grassroots. Organising power. That means we can advance the questions. So people who don’t live in cities and people who may struggle because English is not their first language. They’re able to exercise this right just as well as anybody else. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. I’d like to think we can continue this mobilisation and energy.
SANTILLA: You talked about the role that politicians like Fiona Patton played in drafting the legislation. We’ve got a question from one of our audience members that asks, “How do you get a politician to join the fight or how did you get a politician to join the fight?”
HUGH: I’ll hand to Susie in particular to Fiona Patton. I wanted to add to something that Lizzie said. One of the things that was striking to us was as a human rights organisation we’re often fighting against public opinion. We have offshore decisions where there’s bipartisan support, whereas at least in the part there was strong popular positions in favour of it. 70% of people in support of decriminalisations. Big majorities. That provides an important strength. The conversation before about the framing and the messaging is absolutely critical. The highlighting of women’s experiences of the harassment and intimidation. All of that is key to the sustainability of these reforms. To make sure that you have protection against – because you can bet as we are strategising around these issues. So too are the opponents of these reforms. They are strategising. They are trying to fundraise. They are trying to plan litigation and advocacy. They are reaching out to parliamentarians. All of that. There’s a constant struggle and vigilance. What protects these reforms in a country like Australia where you don’t have constitutional protection of human rights is public opinion, political support. Also vigilance, monitoring, networking and advocacy. All of those things are critical. In terms of engaging with politicians, it’s a huge topic. It’s understanding their motivations. Understanding their interests. Hopefully being able to explain to them why this reform will be of mutual interest for them. Their job is to deliver policies that they care about and also get reelected. If you can align your reform with those two things and say, this will help you with those two things. Then you’re well advanced towards it. Obviously Fiona Patton as an independent was really interested in these issues and passionate about them. She was willing to lead and had the networks in parliament to be able to do it. Let’s be clear there were women all across the parties, as Susie spoke about Colleen heartland, Mary Woolridge, Jill Hennessy and others who led and supported these reforms from across the parliament.
SANTILLA: Susie, if I can come to you very quickly. There’s a question from someone in the audience that asks, “Can you describe the difference between feeling like you’re almost on your own to the time the human rights centre and Maurice Blackburn were supporting you?”
SUSIE: Chalk and cheese. Completely different. I wasn’t trained as an advocate. I was a clinical psychologist. As a clinical psychologist, yes, you are dealing with people’s feelings and all the rest of it. Helping them to live their life. You also want a supportive environment. I was used to dealing with school teachers and families and whatever to build a positive environment for a person. This was beyond me. To try and get someone out there to make sure women were treated decently. So I was chasing my tail. I was doing what I thought would help. Even after the de crim, I think, you know, that built wonderful bonds across parties. We were able to then draw on that again when it came to the safe access zones. Really, after the de crim all the politicians were exhausted. So I felt I was a bit on my own again, although I had good women around me. It really wasn’t until the human rights law centre and Maurice Blackburn came onboard. They knew what they were doing. They had great media people. There was a whole plan. I think that was a huge weight off my shoulders. I think all along I’d been thinking, well, who’s the person who should be doing this. It’s certainly not me. Who is the advocate here? Who is meant to be doing this? I was looking and looking and not finding anyone until I contacted Emily. Yeah.
SANTILLA: Wonderful. We’re almost coming up to the end of our chat. Before we wind-up I was hoping to ask each of you what people can practically do to bring about change in their communities. I might start with you, Lizzie, because earlier on you talked about the levers that needed to be pulled to bring about this sort of change. It required advocacy, lawyers, people actively lobbying politicians as well. It’s interesting in this day and age of social media. There’s tendencies to sign a petition online and click on something and feel like you’ve done enough. Clearly it’s still old school in how you bring about this change. You have to actively go out there and be consistent. I wonder if you can speak about this a bit more.
LIZZIE: As well as doing this kind of work the other field I spend a lot of my time is in the digital rights space. I am very pro organising online. It opens up worlds to you that weren’t previously available to you. That’s a strength. I don’t think it’s a substitute for the kinds of discussions that you have, the collaboration, organising, public awareness raising, planning out of campaigns. Things you would normally have done face-to-face, you can do it online. You can’t dispense doing it. You have to put time into. Having said that as well, the digital rights space, when you talk about surveillance, that’s somewhere where I feel a quaint relevancy. I’m slowly working as someone who needs to be taken seriously by law makers. I’ve been ignored by the mainstream media, law makers, where you feel a sense of comradery. Talk about issues outside of technical formats. That you try and make the arguments you’re making really accessible. I suppose I think I can learn from that and hopefully readers can learn from the book. Persistence is rewarded. What Hugh was talking about before, there’s no substitute for it. You have to do this work for when the opportunity arises. There’s a real dignity. There’s a real public purpose in doing this work. I think it’s a shame that activists and agitators and advocates are not rewarded or thanked enough for that work. That it is critically important. I would encourage people, even when you’re feeling dispirited about your particular issue. Don’t cease and desist. Carry on. It’s vitally important to our democracy. I suppose more generally I think there are opportunities that come up. When that does arise you want to be on your best form for taking advantage of them. One of the ways I think you can do that is building a diversity of voices. Thinking outside of the box in terms of who you collaborate with. Across disciplines. Finding your people in other fields of work that understand what you’re trying to do. That’s what Susie was really good at. Nobody can say no to Susie. She’s really nice. She communicates in a really accessible way. She’s on the side of right but she found these people and pulled them together. That’s really important work, in my view. I think in the digital rights space we can do the same thing. Talking about how technology affects lots of different movements, not just particular sections of society. So I think it’s probably true for all different kinds of social movement looking across disciplinary ways of organising is really important.
SANTILLA: Wonderful. Thank you so much for that advice, Lizzie. Hugh, if I can come to you. Any tips that you might be able to share with us if we want to bring about –
HUGH: What Lizzie said. Beyond that I don’t think there’s no one size fits all. It depends. Persistence, recognition is going to be hard and you’ll probably fail a few times before you succeed. You may not succeed. Draw hope. You have to have hope to be able to achieve change. One of the joys of my work has been working with people like Susie. Susie, you have been inspiring for me to work with and reading your book, after lockdown. Lots of stresses and things like that. It’s inspirational to read about your advocacy and your change. I just wanted to recognise that and say thank you because it inspires me and people like me to do progressive advocacy in other areas as well. I would say understanding who the key decision-makers are is absolutely critically important and understanding what their interests are and what will motivate them to achieve that change. Sometimes motivating means they will suffer political pain if they don’t do what you are asking or demanding of them. Sometimes it has to be in that kind of framework. Particularly what we’re seeing succeed time and time again is really focusing on the experiences of the people who are affected. Prioritising their voices in the advocacy. That’s what we did by all of that evidence gathering. The incredibly advocacy of Susie who is seeing that first hand. That harassment and talking to people day in and day out and the impact on them. Shining a light on that and making it unavoidable for decision-makers to ignore.
SANTILLA: Great. Lastly and very, very quickly, Susie. Any quick tips that you’ve learnt through decades of pushing this issue through?
SUSIE: I think make sure you meet the right people, like those two there. I think it’s having the courage to speak up. So many women spoke up. In the book I include quite a bit of Hansard. Everybody goes, Hansard. But these women and men who spoke up so beautifully in parliament. The woman who spoke up to the media about their own abortions. About their own experiences. They were brave. This is what’s happening now in all areas where there is violence against women. We’re saying, no, it’s not good enough. We have to stop this. Women are speaking up. It is at cost. The cost can be great. That’s why we all need to be out there supporting those who are basically the whistle blowers of our failures in our society. But I think the more women can speak up and knowing who they are and not feel ashamed about what it is to be a woman. I think we all have to speak up, continue to.
SANTILLA: Hear, hear: Thank you so much, Susie for your advocacy and for speaking up. Thank you, Lizzie and Hugh – Lizzie and Susie in particular for writing the book. If you do want a copy which I can’t recommend enough.
SUSIE: She’s so beautiful.
SANTILLA: There’s a link in the chat box you can access. A big thank you to the VWT for putting on this event. They do very important work. I’m a very big fan of them. Also thank you to everyone that tuned in to listen to these three incredibly insightful people. Yeah. Enjoy the rest of your day. Thanks.
Catch up on 'Agency & Resistance', a violence prevention webinar with Nicole Lee, Fiona Hamilton and Jess Hill.Read more