After several weeks of foot-dragging over the rape allegations against Attorney-General Christian Porter and a senior Liberal party staff member, the ALP has finally stirred itself to reflect the mood of widespread anger in society. Senior Labor figures have said that they are now prepared to act against sexual abusers in their own ranks. These are welcome, if belated, developments. How far Labor goes is unclear though, since cleaning house will involve taking down powerful figures.

As revelations of alleged Liberal Party sexual abuse came to the fore, Labor’s initial response was tepid. In fact, it was outrageous. Morrison was left virtually unchallenged by Labor’s front bench as the Liberals sought to deny and deflect. Morrison could understand Brittany Higgins’ pain only because he had daughters. He hadn’t heard of Higgins’ alleged rape before the media ran the story even though his office was just 50 metres from the scene of the alleged crime.

Morrison denied having heard about allegations against Porter even though there was scuttlebutt about it in the hallways of Parliament House for years. He refused even to read the lengthy testimony by Porter’s alleged victim. His immediate declaration was that he was satisfied with Porter’s’ denial, that the attorney-general was innocent and that the matter should be referred to the Federal Police, despite them having no jurisdiction in such cases.

All this went by and Labor barely roused itself. Had it not been for a handful of journalists, it is likely that the story would have been buried. Labor’s virtual silence was unforgiveable. At face value, it was also inexplicable. Short of murdering a woman on the floor of parliament with the House of Representatives in full session, how could the Liberals have made themselves more of a target?

Labor had every opportunity to take a strong stand about the Liberals’ bastardry. The story was running on the front pages of newspapers and in news bulletins day after day, hundreds of thousands of women recognised the plight of Higgins and that of Porter’s alleged victim as their own—and they were flooding social media with their anger at the government’s attempt to brazen its way through. Even the most cynical Labor politician could surely see that this was an opportunity to attack the government.

So it’s welcome that Albanese and others finally seem to have woken up to what has been going on under their noses for years. The turning point came on the eve of the March for Justice. The media were making a big thing of the rallies; it became impossible to ignore the fact that tens of thousands of people were going to demonstrate against the government around the country.

Albanese, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong went on the offensive. The shadow cabinet turned out in numbers outside Parliament House in Canberra. More than that, on returning from their hour of activism, Labor members attacked the government in the chamber for the first time. Albanese accused the prime minister of having “not so much a tin ear as a wall of concrete” in his refusal to respond to the public mood:

“What I saw outside was passionate women who are angry. They are angry about what’s happened to them. They are angry about what has happened to their mothers, their grandmothers, their sisters, their daughters and their granddaughters. They are crying out that this is a moment that requires leadership. It requires leadership from this prime minister—and we are not getting it, prime minister.”

It was not just the federal pollies, but state Labor politicians too. Dozens of them, premiers included, showed up at the marches. And the Labor Party mobilised its machine in the unions in some cities. In Brisbane, not just the premier and her cabinet greet the demonstration, but many unions also marched with banners and placards.

Labor’s early failure to attack the government was clearly a symptom of its concern that any inquiry into sexual abuse would reveal skeletons in its own closet. Morrison picked this up at the outset. To deflect attention from the sexual abusers in his party’s ranks, the prime minister insinuated that the ALP was also culpable. “If we go down, you go down”, was the not-so-subtle message.

Journalist Samantha Maiden’s report, the weekend before the March for Justice, of a private Facebook group of 1,300 Labor staffers that was running hot with allegations of sexual abuse and sexist behaviour by unnamed male Labor politicians was the other issue that brought the matter to a head. If Labor was going to attack Morrison, how could it do so without addressing its own internal problems? This was true both morally and electorally—Labor’s assault on the government would have looked completely hypocritical.

Senior figures in the ALP must have known for years about lots of these stories or, if not the specifics, the general pattern of sleazy or worse behaviour by Labor staffers and parliamentarians. But when Maiden blew the whistle, Labor politicians had to respond. Labor leaders took a very different tack from the Liberals, immediately announcing that they believed the women’s allegations.

Deputy leader Richard Marles said that the allegations were “an indictment on us. Labor can’t duck away from this ... This is our house, which we need to get in order, and these really are appalling allegations”. Former deputy leader Plibersek, along with frontbencher Katy Gallagher and MPs Sharon Claydon and Anika Wells issued a statement: “We see you and hear you and are truly sorry that you have had these experiences working in the party” and then listed actions the women could take.

Labor now faces an acid test. How serious is it about cleaning house? From all accounts, the alleged offenders in its ranks are not just junior staffers. Anna Jabour, who was just 21 when working in Julia Gillard’s office, reported her experience of being subjected to or witnessing sexual abuse by men in the upper echelons in the party—including one who she alleges is currently a senior Labor figure, and others who work as consultants or in state governments and are still in office.

“Everywhere I looked, everyone I looked up to, there were misdemeanours that were alleged or excused due to the pressures men faced in the workplace”, Jabour wrote. “Parliament House was the most misogynistic workplace I have ever entered.”

The Facebook group reportedly carried posts by current or former staffers who told of Labor politicians and staffers having sex with intoxicated women without proper consent, harassing women with dozens of text messages in a single evening demanding sex, and propositioning young women in front of their colleagues. Another allegation involved a man, 40 years senior, groping a female staffer and trying to stick his tongue down her throat. Another reportedly used vile sexist abuse towards a staffer, and yet another punched a wall next to his female staffer’s head, calling her “a fucking cunt”.

It will be welcome if Labor takes an axe to the sexists and rapists in its own ranks, but we certainly cannot rely on the party to do this. Powerful men with the ability to make and break careers are involved. The whole culture of the ALP is about looking after factional mates. And everyone has dirt on them. Everything about Labor’s history makes it unlikely that it will take serious action beyond sacrificing a few individuals. The party, after all, has a record of saying one thing and doing another.

In 2014, Labor’s Luke Foley, the NSW opposition leader, condemned allegations of sexual abuse by one of his colleagues, stating: “There’s no place in the party I lead for the harassment of women”. Four years later, Foley was forced to quit after being accused by ABC journalist Ashleigh Raper of drunkenly pawing her and sliding his hand into her underpants at a function.

The Murdoch press, with Andrew Bolt leading the charge, are trying to use these allegations against Labor figures to deflect attention from the Coalition’s crimes. This is disgusting: victims of Coalition sexual abuse need to get justice, not have their stories buried.

But this does not mean that we should just shut up about allegations against Labor—that we need to bite our tongues because speaking out “only helps the Coalition”. Just because the Murdoch press and the Coalition are hypocrites does not mean that the ALP is excused from dealing with its own cases of sexual violence. Labor needs to press ahead with its attacks on the entire Morrison government, female cabinet members included, but it cannot do so without a thorough purge of its own offenders.