What Parliament Needs To Do In The Wake Of Brittany Higgins’ Assault Allegations
Brittany Higgins is a former Liberal staffer who says she was sexually assaulted by a senior colleague in Parliament House in 2019.
Her story has made waves around the country this week.
There’s a bunch of controversy around what members of the Liberal party knew and how Brittany was treated in the aftermath.
So, how was she treated? And what have her experiences now exposed about how parliament deals with serious sexual assault allegations?
This episode contains descriptions of the alleged sexual assault, so if you’re not comfortable with that please feel free to give this a miss.
Brittany Higgins’ Story
Back in March 2019, Brittany was 24 and worked in the office of the Minister for Defence Industry, Linda Reynolds.
About three weeks after she joined Reynolds’ staff, she went out for drinks with a group of people.
She said she was pretty drunk – so much so that she’d fallen over in front of people – and a male staffer offered to drive her home.
But instead of doing that, Brittany claims he took her to Parliament House, where he allegedly raped her on the sofa in Reynolds’ office.
The way that Brittany was apparently treated after she told her boss was horrendous.
She said she was made to feel as though, if she went to the police, she’d be putting her career on the line. She also said that she felt pressured to not say anything by the Liberal party because of the upcoming federal election.
The Liberal Party’s Response To Brittany Higgins
So, what have the Libs said about it now it’s all come out?
Well, Scott Morrison apologised, but the apology included this painful comment: “…You have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?“
Morrison also said that he didn’t know about the assault until The Project covered the story. But there’s still a lot of unanswered questions around who knew what and when, because it seems like members of his office knew pretty soon after it happened.
The PM has now said he’ll launch an investigation into parliament’s culture, as well as reviews into the laws governing that workplace.
But his response has provided a really damning insight into a parliamentary culture.
Brittany’s story is a serious crime on a different level to what was outlined in ABC’s 4 Corners investigation Inside the Canberra Bubble, which was released last year. But it does contribute to the same picture of a sexist workplace culture that seeks to silence victims.
So, What’s Helped To Keep Parliament’s Gag Culture Going?
Dr Katrine Beauregard (Australian National University): “One of the main issues is that there’s a lot of fear over repercussions … This is the dream job for a lot people, they want to be in politics … Once you’ve made it there’s this pressure to go along and keep your spot.”
Partisanship is also a big issue here.
KB: “If allegations of misconduct are dealt with by politicians, or people who are involved, or by bodies who are partisan then there’s this danger of putting the party above the well-being of the staff, or the wellbeing of the people who have been mistreated.”
Staffers themselves are also in a pretty unique position. They’re not public servants, they’re employed under separate legislation, so they’re hired and fired at the discretion of ministers.
That puts them in a bit of a bind where they might be more willing to put up with things like sexual harassment or bullying at work to maintain that relationship with their employer.
Both Brittany and Katrine say these promises of reviews that the PM has made aren’t good enough, and parliament really needs to establish an independent body for complaints going forward.
KB: “If parties have to control, or are in charge of, implementing penalties – or implementing working relationships, or dealing with complaints – the concern always becomes; what comes first – the party or the security and good relationship with the staff? Or a good working environment for the staff?
By having an independent body, you’re trying to remove the politics of the process of something that is very much a workplace behaviour that exists in every other type of employment.”
From everything we’re learning, the culture at Parliament House appears to be one where sexism, bullying and even serious crimes can go unpunished.
Brittany’s story is another insight into a toxic working environment that needs to make some fundamental changes to protect its workers.