Scott Morrison – Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations speak to basic questions of accountability in politics
At the political heart of the harrowing personal story of a young woman allegedly being raped on the couch of a minister’s office in Parliament House is the idea that, beyond the assault itself, the incident may have been covered up, and the young woman made to feel a political liability.
This week’s revelation about the story of the young Coalition staffer Brittany Higgins is spoken of as one which reflects an appalling workplace culture for women in Canberra’s Parliament House.
But it also speaks to the more basic questions of the culture of accountability in politics, and of competent management.
A lot of the attention in the Parliament has been directed at probing what the Prime Minister, or his office, knew of this.
He has adamantly insisted that he knew nothing of it until this week, even after a media report on Friday of a text message sent to one of his staff a few days after the incident. Morrison has asked his department head to review what all members of his staff did know.
Lots of people find this exceptionally difficult to believe, including former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd.
This is because a prime minister should be told that a crime has allegedly been committed against one of his staff, in one of his minister’s offices.
If he hasn’t been told, this seems an extraordinary act of political and managerial incompetence by all the people who knew what had happened, particularly in an environment where the issue of the treatment of women — and a toxic culture in politics and particularly the Liberal Party — was a running issue for the government from the time female Liberal MPs started to complain about it.
But pinging the Prime Minister for not knowing about it shouldn’t be the only test here.
The extraordinary thing about this story
The thing that is extraordinary about this story is that so many people did know that this happened. The list of people who knew, at the very least, that an “incident” had taken place, has only grown longer as the week progressed.
According to Brittany Higgins, at least two fellow staffers had been informed that something had happened in the office in the days after the alleged assault on the night of March 22, 2019, because there had been a security breach reported in the office.
Higgins says one staffer told her she had been “found” by a security guard who entered the minister’s office suite early on Sunday morning. Higgins at this point had been asleep or unconscious on the couch in a state of some dishevelment.
She was in a sufficiently bad state, it seemed, that the security guard came back twice during the night to check in on her.
She says the staffer asked her directly whether she had been raped by the alleged rapist.
Reynolds’ chief of staff was also informed of the security breach by security staff in the Ministerial Wing. Reynolds has subsequently said the alleged perpetrator was sacked for a security breach.
A statement tabled by the Prime Minister on Monday said, “as part of this process, the Prime Minister’s office provided support to Minister Reynolds and her office in assessing a breach of the Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff by the other staff member involved in the incident”.
A text message reported by The Australian on Friday records a former staffer reporting to Higgins on April 3, 2019 that he had discussed it with a senior staffer in the Prime Minister’s office who was “mortified” to hear about “it”, and that he was going to discuss it with the PM’s chief of staff.
Who was looking out for Higgins?
Beyond the immediate time frame of the assault, there is the period between April 2019 and this week, when even more people seemed to be made aware that something significant had happened which was provoking the interest of the police.
The Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate both became aware of an “incident” that was prompting the police to ask for CCTV footage, in April of 2019.
In 2020, the police and the former federal security inspector general Vivienne Thom both carried out inquiries to see whether cleaning in the minister’s office had destroyed evidence of a crime scene.
Members of a parliamentary committee were also briefed that some incident had taken place because of confidential submissions made to the inquiry.
Beyond the declared decision of Reynolds to respect Higgins’ privacy, and a similar decision by Minister Michaelia Cash — for whom Higgins subsequently worked — it seemed large parts of the Parliament House network were aware that something serious was alleged to have happened, even if they did not know who the alleged victim was.
Yet it seemed no-one was looking out for Higgins in any meaningful way. No-one seemed to quite grasp the difference in scale of the offence of rape, compared to some less violent form of sexual harassment.
And now the government and its ministers are stuck in the less-than-flattering light of appearing to hide behind a rape victim as a defence against not answering questions about what happened after the alleged assault.
The standard answers to questions now — particularly from the Minister for Defence — are that answering questions may compromise an open police investigation.
This is despite Higgins stating that she had not yet asked police to re-activate the investigation into the incident (which she did late on Friday), and gave the Opposition permission to ask questions of the minister this week about the episode.
As Labor’s Senator Katy Gallagher said in the Senate on Wednesday, “whilst we accept that there are matters that may be subject to police investigation in the future, there are matters which aren’t”.
“And those matters go to the conduct of this minister: When did she know? What did she do? How did she respond?”
“By withholding information, what she is continuing is the cover-up that has been underway for two years, which has been the cause of much trauma to Ms Higgins,” Gallagher said.
“It’s the cover-up, often, that is as traumatic as other elements of a serious crime like this, because it compounds the trauma. It means that people she worked for, people she looked up to, who she expected to treat her properly, haven’t. And Senator Reynolds does nothing — nothing — to dissuade us from that view by not answering.”
She went on: “The Senate deserves better, Ms Higgins deserves better and, frankly, I think the rest of Australia believes the defence minister of this country should provide that information.”
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.