A young woman has come forward to say that she was raped in the inner sanctum of Australian political power, the ministerial offices of Parliament House.
No one is denying it. Not her colleagues, not her employer of the time, not the prime minister in the government she served. On the contrary, her employer of that time, today’s Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, shed tears of remorse in the Senate this week. The Prime Minister offered his apologies.
Brittany Higgins says she was raped two years ago. It turns out that dozens of people in the Morrison government and parliamentary staff knew. At least two cabinet ministers, women both. Political staff. At least one member of Scott Morrison’s personal staff. Senior public servants. Police and security attendants.
A few offered help and support to Higgins. To be fair to Reynolds, she was one of them. The alleged rapist was also a member of Reynolds’ staff. Reynolds at first understood the late-night incident in her office to be a security breach. The alleged assailant was sacked within four days as a result. It then emerged that it was much more serious. Reynolds offered to help Higgins with access to the police and to counselling. Higgins chose to tell the police of the incident but not to make a complaint.
But others told Higgins to keep it quiet. Some members of the government’s political staff worked hard to keep it so, on Brittany’s account. Especially when it seemed that a reporter might be on to the story. She has since said that, from the very outset, she felt that she was seen in the building as being a “political problem”.
As she told journalist Lisa Wilkinson in an interview on The Project on Monday: “It felt like immediately it became a political problem, it wasn’t a staffing problem, it wasn’t a human problem, it was like we have an issue.” She was 24 at the time of the alleged rape.
As far as we know so far, no one did anything to try change the system, to make it less likely in future that the seat of lawmaking could be the scene of monstrous law breaking.
The crime committed against Higgins only received serious attention when she decided to tell her story to the media this week. The crime has shocked even the most jaded of the Canberra cognoscenti. The concealment, the casual overlooking of her case has exposed a cold inhumanity at the centre of power.
One of the many unpretentious, apolitical workers who has tended thanklessly to the needs of parliamentarians for many years took it personally: “If they do that to her” – one of their own – “what would they do to you and me?” he posed to me.
He’s right. If so many people with power and responsibility allowed the case of an enthusiastic, young Liberal to be overlooked, suppressed, covered up, what would they do to people who don’t belong to their tribe if we were under their control? The implication is that they will do anything they think they can get away with.
Parliament House has long been a hotbed of consensual sex and extramarital sex. Unlike much other parliamentary activity, it’s always been bipartisan business. No party has a monopoly on licentiousness. But consensual relationships largely remained out of public view until Barnaby Joyce’s affair with a staff member went public. Malcolm Turnbull decided to ban sex between ministers and their staff as a result.
And less welcome sexual attentions in the form of sexual harassment also have been a standing problem. In decades past there was a discreet backchannel operating between the prime minister’s office and the opposition leader’s office to keep sexual misconduct in check. Each side kept an eye out for rogue behaviour by members of the other and duly alerted the leaders’ offices accordingly. That system fell into disuse years ago.
And when sexual harassment and sexist bullying cases have intermittently broken out into public view, there have been internal inquiries and internal reviews which, inevitably, come to naught. Morrison himself launched just such a review in 2018. Like all the others, it came to naught. That is the very purpose of internal reviews. If you keep it internal, you can control it, muffle it, delay it until everyone forgets about it. Everyone except the victims.
But the case of Higgins is in another category altogether. Rape is a grave crime. Apart from murder, it’s as serious a crime that one person can commit against another.
The crime against Brittany Higgins sits unanswered. It is unanswered in the specific case of Higgins, but it is also unanswered in the wider case of the Australian Parliament. Until this alleged crime is answered for Higgins in particular and answered systemically by the Parliament for Australia, it is a standing challenge to the legitimacy of the government, the Parliament, and the exercise of power itself.
When Scotland won its campaign for devolution of power from London, a Scottish parliament met for the first time in 300 years. At the opening ceremony in 1999, the man known as the “father of the Scottish nation”, Donald Dewar, told the new parliament: “This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”
This is a similar moment for Australia. The response to the crime against Higgins is about our politics and our laws. But it is also about who we are, how we carry ourselves as a nation.
At the first parliamentary question time after News Corp’s Samantha Maiden broke the story on Monday morning, Scott Morrison expressed concern, offered support, and tried to duck. “Reports today are deeply distressing. This matter is under consideration by police.”
At the time, while ACT police said the file on Higgins’ case was open, they said that they were not pursuing a complaint against the alleged rapist. Because, Higgins still hadn’t filed one. A matter “under consideration” is not a matter “under investigation” or subject to the courts. So Higgins was refusing to give the political system an easy out. Uncomfortable as it was for the Prime Minister, Higgins was actually giving it an opportunity to reform itself.
On day two Morrison tried to duck again. This time, it was the time-honoured “internal review”. Not one but two. One review by the Liberal Party and the other by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. In other words, reviews by two organs under Morrison’s direct control. Guaranteed to come to no difficult conclusions and fade away like all the others. This is the “business as usual” reflex, suppression disguised as action. It’s what a prime minister does with a “political problem”.
Labor didn’t let him get away with it. Anthony Albanese called for an independent, external review and offered Labor’s support. The House of Representatives crossbench joined the call. One of the crossbenchers, the independent member for Warringah, Zali Steggall, explained that she and two other independent MPs, Rebekha Sharkie and Helen Haines, met to discuss the shocking news. They asked themselves what they would do if one of their staff came forward with a similar experience.
“What resources do we have, what procedures are there, where would we take a matter like that?” says Steggall. They couldn’t say, didn’t know. “If the three of us can’t come to a conclusion about where to go in a crisis, a 24-year-old wouldn’t have a chance either.” Steggall is a former barrister as well as former Olympic athlete. So Morrison committed to conducting a serious, independent review. We should expect to see the details next week.
The crossbenchers don’t want it to be limited to an issue of gender. One, Rebekha Sharkie, MP for South Australia’s Mayo, told the ABC: “It is really important that we don’t make this just about one gender because I’m sure that there are many young men in this place who perhaps have felt the victim – as a victim and perhaps they have left working here. We need to make sure that every person who is a pass holder in this place feels that they have an independent body to go to so that they can be well supported with their circumstances”.
Higgins is handling herself well in the media and political melee so far. On Friday, she said she would proceed with a formal police complaint against the alleged rapist. On the systemic problem in Parliament, culture reviews can’t hurt. And we’ll now see a couple. But to change behaviour, incentives must change. Sharkie is right. The idea of an independent body is one way to change behaviour. We can be guided by successful precedents.
After decades of politicians rorting their expenses, the solution was the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Agency, which is now operating well. After decades of parties squabbling over claims that their opponents are guilty of “black hole” budget costing disasters, the solution was the Parliamentary Budget Office, which is working brilliantly. The solution both times was an independent, expert umpire operating with high levels of transparency.
As grim as this moment is, the independent Zali Steggall is right: “You can’t change the past, but there is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to show real leadership – at the end of the day here’s your chance for redemption.”
Peter Hartcher is political editor.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.