Geoff Helisma, Clarence Valley Independent
It was reported in last week’s Independent – ‘Activists lobby politicians to take action on sexual harassment’ – that Prue Leggoe OAM was the guest speaker at the March4Justice event in Iluka.
Ms Leggoe was awarded her Order of Australia Medal on January 26, 2019, for her work in the advancement of women’s rights, support and empowerment, and her service to community job-readiness initiatives.
Now residing in Maclean, Ms Leggoe (formerly Sibree) was the Liberal member for Kew in Victoria from 1981 to 1986.
Her experiences in the Victorian Parliament are amplified by the women’s rights issues currently dominating the Australian media; for example, a minister put his walking stick up her skirt when she was making her maiden speech.
Subsequently another politician touched her inappropriately when she was meeting with constituents in the dining room and said, ‘Oh isn’t she gorgeous, isn’t she lovely.’
Ms Leggoe raised the inappropriate behavior in the parliament, however, all of the other women across the parties “came out against” her, she said.
“One week later they all apologized to me, saying, ‘Oh, it happens to us.’”
The Independent put a few questions to the former parliamentarian.
GH: First up, it seems you have moved far away from what the Coalition stands for these days. Your actions and community work, while not necessarily aligned with the ‘left’, however, do fit that stereotype; have you become less conservative in your views since leaving the Victorian parliament 40 years ago?
PL: Not really, they just became more conservative. I joined the Liberal Party in 1969 as a young Liberal. [Sir] Dick Hamer became the premier ; he was a very outward looking man who encouraged change and the arts, he got rid of capital punishment, made changes in social legislation, for example decimalisation of homosexuality – so he was a bit of a progressive. I haven’t changed, the Liberal Party has failed.
GH: Why only a march in Iluka and not anywhere else in the valley?
PL: Because two good women in Iluka and Woombah, Berri Brown and Robin Thomas, thought it was their chance to do and say something constructive to carry this forward. The invitations went out and we did have people from Yamba, Maclean, Iluka and Woombah, but no one from Grafton – we had someone from Sydney who marched and a man came from Wooli … people had real commitment.
GH: One of the more interesting things to emerge during this tumultuous time is women coming forward who have acknowledged that the issue was happening while they were a part of the status quo, and you, as a former Victorian parliamentarian, are among that cohort, could you tell me about the pressures you felt then that prevented you (and many others) from speaking out?
PL: Well, actually, I did speak out. It was interesting; I was a 36-year-old woman and went into parliament with young kids at home. The banner headline in The Age when I was preselected to be the member for the most blue-ribbon Liberal seat in the state, was, ‘Young mum follows Hamer’; not young lawyer, young mum … terrific start. It was a boys club. During my maiden speech, I was speaking from the backbench; a minister came up behind me and put his walking stick up my skirt. That’s how they were treating people. Eventually they got rid of him, but nothing happened. It was a very male place; there was no female toilet, for instance, so when you walked in, the blokes would be under the shower without the door closed.
GH: In your speech, you said, “Not only do laws need to change, but community attitudes and leadership on this issue need to be at the forefront of improving our community values and culture,” and nominated a raft of specific areas for improvement. From where do you envision effective leadership emerging to improve community attitudes?
PL: Number one, it starts at the top of any organisation, be it the parliament, a council, an organisation, whatever. If you don’t have the person at the top walking the talk and calling it out, getting rid of people who aren’t acceptable or follow the values of the organisation – fairness, respect – then they should not be a part of that organisation. After I called it out in parliament I had a huge number of calls from people – the women who were abused and complained, they always lost their jobs. We need more independent women in parliament, who are not tied to a party. They can have a voice without any restrictions.
This article appeared in the Clarence Valley Independent, 7 April 2021.