An organiser in tears, accusations of lying and a PM in a hurried exit (2024)

It was meant to be a moment in which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined with tens of thousands of people nationally to demand an end to men's violence.

What resulted was anything but.

An organiser was left in tears, accusations of lies were levelled and the prime minister swept away in a hurried exit.

In attending the Canberra rally against gender violence, one of 12 across the country, Albanese did what few of his prime ministerial predecessors have attempted.

But like so many of those who came before him, he now faces being haunted by the consequences of what played out on the grass outside Parliament House.

An organiser in tears, accusations of lying and a PM in a hurried exit (1)

The tone was set, the message was clear

The Canberra rally started a little after 2pm and the tone was set from the start.

As participants were taught three chants for the march, one of the organisers made clear that if anyone was there just to meet the PM, they'd do well to leave now.

The message was clear: this march was for the victim-survivors and their allies demanding an end to the assault and murder of women, in many cases by men they know.

Albanese, flanked by his partner Jodie Haydon, Minister for Women Katy Gallagher and Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth, walked among thousands of people across Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin in the afternoon sun.

They spoke with participants as the march snaked its way up Capital Hill to the footsteps of Parliament House.

Participants seemed pleased the prime minister had come, in part because of the message it sent about the nation's leader showing up. One member of the march privately bemoaned that she had been unable to convince her husband and son to come — both having dismissed the rally as something for women to attend.

So here Albanese stood, a man surrounded by a majority-female crowd, insisting that those who looked and sounded like him needed to be better.

Within minutes, however, his attendance would go off the tracks.

An organiser in tears, accusations of lying and a PM in a hurried exit (2)

The political response was muted

Sexual assault survivor, Sarah Williams, a 23-year-old Indigenous woman from Newcastle, founded the not-for-profit group behind the rally, What Were You Wearing.

She spoke at length about her story, the experiences she endured and the struggles she faced when reporting what she'd lived through. Williams did so in the same spot that women had marched on Parliament House three years earlier.

Williams encouraged politicians to come forward, urging those present not to shame them. None of the Labor, Greens or independents present stepped forward.

She then set about reading five demands, after each looking to the PM and his ministers to see if they'd be willing to offer a thumbs up or thumbs down if they were willing to agree.

After each question, Williams stood in her power, a victim-survivor making a demand of the nation's leaders.

"Why are you even here," one person yelled at the muted political response to the demands.


Something during this period looks to have changed the PM's thinking and unprompted he walked to the front, standing behind Williams as she continued to address those gathered.

As if by intuition, Williams foreshadowed what would come next. She told the crowd she didn't want the politicians to speak, fearing it would become the "sh*t Sarah show" and make her the "next Brittany Higgins".

She told the crowd shewanted the focus to be on the women who'd beenkilled this year,and the Indigenous and queer people disproportionately affected by violence. But she feared she was set to become the story.

"I'm the prime minister," Albanese can be heard saying to her, with Williams having turned her back on the crowd to speak directly with him.

In taking the microphone, Albanese met an at times hostile crowd. He thanked the organisers before saying: "To be clear, we did ask to speak, myself and Katy, and were told that wasn't possible."

Williams's reaction was immediate and visceral. "That's a lie, that's a full-out lie," she said. Williams was immediately engulfed by supporters as she lowered her head and cried into her hands.

And suddenly, Albanese's words were lost

There's a dispute between the organisers and the government about speaking requests.

Irrespective, the image the nation saw was one of Australia's most powerful men leaving an Indigenous victim-survivor in tears.

That the PM wasn't locked in to speak was likely why his office was arranging a press conference for him to speak to the media alongside the rally.

It would never eventuate, with Albanese leaving immediately after speaking, irrespective of the speeches continuing behind him.

An organiser in tears, accusations of lying and a PM in a hurried exit (3)

Rallies outside Parliament House are often symbolic events.

Delivered in the foreground of an iconic Australian landmark, they allow participants to issue their demands direct to the nation's leaders.

Handled poorly, and they can haunt the nation's leaders.

Barely a month went past without Tony Abbott being reminded of standing in front of signs reading "ditch the witch" and "Bob Brown's bitch". It came to embody the allegations the Liberal Party faced about the treatment of women in the years that followed.

Scott Morrison didn't attend the women's rally in 2021 but later reminded those who were there that they were lucky they weren't shot.

In coming to the rally, Albanese wanted to be seen, to be standing in solidarity with those wanting action for what he called a national crisis.

His handling of Sarah Williams meant the words he wanted to share — that his government must do better, that violence is a societal problem and that men needed to change their behaviour — were lost.

Albanese had the chance to come and listen to the speakers.

Instead, he came and spoke and having said his piece turned his back and drove off.

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An organiser in tears, accusations of lying and a PM in a hurried exit (2024)
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