How could it happen? The facts are as stark as they are shocking: a young woman, a Liberal staffer, alleges she was raped by a colleague on the office couch of the minister for whom they both worked. The alleged sexual assault occurred in one of the most secure buildings in the country, in the place where laws are made and democratic boundaries set for the Australian people: our Parliament.

As news broke this week of the report by Brittany Higgins – that she was sexually assaulted in her place of work, and then treated like a political problem by the institution that employed her – a wave of questions and recriminations rolled out from Canberra.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised to former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, inset. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen/The Project

But while staff, politicians and the public expressed their horror, others observed that while the alleged incident was shocking, it was not that surprising.

For years, incident after incident has exposed what many say is a parliamentary and political culture that is toxic for women.

Brittany Higgins has accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of using “victim-blaming” language in the political debate over his response to allegations of rape. Credit:

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the Herald/Age said she was “horrified both by the incident, and the aftermath”. Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the place thrives on disrespect for women and compared it to corporate culture in the 1970s. Former Liberal MP Julia Banks has said the Liberal party has “an entrenched culture of anti-woman”.

But while the criticisms were made, our political leaders struggled to respond. Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised to the alleged victim, Brittany Higgins, who was 24 at the time of the incident. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, for whom Higgins and her alleged assailant were working at the time of the alleged 2019 assault, also apologised.

The Prime Minister announced no fewer than four reviews to respond to the crisis, but faced a public backlash when he said he had formulated his response after discussing the issue with his wife Jenny, who had a way of “clarifying things” for him.

“She said to me: ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’” Morrison said, in comments labelled paternalistic and inappropriate as a response to allegations of a crime.

Questions were asked about who knew what when, and at what level, when it emerged that dozens of people in Parliament, from political staff and security personnel to ministers, knew about the alleged assault but did little about it. Higgins was only offered rape crisis support by the police, although she ultimately chose not to pursue a formal police complaint.

The Prime Minister came under pressure when it emerged that at least one (and possibly three) of his senior staff were aware of the alleged crime but apparently did not bring it to the attention of their boss.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds became emotional during question time after earlier saying she was “deeply sorry” if her handling of sexual assault allegations has caused a former staff member distress.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Amid the furore, Higgins accused the Prime Minister of using “victim-blaming” language, and it was unclear what would emerge from the crisis as the priority: the political interests of the government or real and permanent change.

‘Legal black hole’

David (not his real name) worked as a senior Coalition staffer for more than five years. He agreed to be quoted only on condition of anonymity, because he has nothing very good to say about the parliamentary culture and its treatment of staffers, especially female ones.

“Parliament House exists in a legal black hole,” he said this week.

“It’s as if Parliament House has been cut off the map of Australia in terms of workers’ rights. I know the public has no sympathy for political staff, who are well paid, but that’s not a reason to be dehumanised.

“People are treated appallingly and there is literally nowhere to go, there is no HR department. There is no realistic place to complain.”

One of the reviews announced by Morrison in response to Higgins’ allegation was into the processes available to political staffers to complain of abuse or harassment.

The Liberal Member for Curtin, Celia Hammond, will look at the culture within Coalition MPs’ offices, with the assistance of Fiona Martin, a psychologist before she became the Member for Reid. Dr Martin has asked the presiding officers for mental health workers to be permanently based in Parliament House, similar to the physiotherapist and nurse services already available.

Brittany Higgins while she was working for Employment Minister Michaelia Cash.

Most MPs have alcohol in their office fridges, lobby groups host after-hours social events in Parliament House, and alcohol is sold at hospitality outlets on the premises.

Higgins and her alleged perpetrator came to Parliament House drunk, late on a Friday night. But unlike other workplaces, it is not unusual for people under the influence of alcohol to be wandering around the corridors of Parliament House. After hours, the action moves to the bars and restaurants of inner Canberra.

David said he witnessed the objectification of female staff.

“A lot of the male ministers seem to think it’s fair game to hit on female staff,” he claims.

“I think most of those 50-year-old men have no idea how intimidating it is for a 30-year-old woman to be hit on by a 50-year-old Cabinet minister.”

A female former staffer attests to the same cultural problems. “There’s a lot of functions with alcohol present and people use alcohol as a release.”

She said that there “is just no HR mechanism” for staffers.

“If this happened in a corporation there would be processes followed.

“For a place that is supposed to be promoting progressive policies for women in parliament, it’s almost Byzantine, the system of complaints.

“I’ve seen bullying behaviour that is hard to speak out against. It’s not like a normal workplace.”

Professor Paula McDonald is an expert on workplace harassment and misconduct at the Queensland University of Technology.

She has worked on several institutional reviews of sexual misconduct in the workplace and says complaints of abuse and harassment often go public when the complaints process within an organisation is “deficient or not timely”.

She says there are many risk factors for abuse and harassment within a profession.

One of them is “systems of patronage”, where careers are heavily dependent on one all-powerful boss, “macho” or blokey environments and tribal workplace cultures “where you look after each other because it’s a dangerous workplace”, such as the military or the police.

“Alcohol is absolutely a significant risk factor for sexual assault because it diminishes inhibitions,” Dr McDonald says, although she stresses that doesn’t mean victims share responsibility if they are intoxicated at the time of the abuse.

One current Liberal politician completely rejects any blame laid on Canberra’s drinking culture as a “cop-out”. “It is an unusual workplace but it’s not unique,” he says.

“People are responsible for their standards and conduct.”

One female senior Coalition politician says: “You can attack the culture but it takes two to tango.

“The male politicians have taken advantage of it and we have seen time and again it happening. There is more chance of it coming out now, whereas before it was kept low-key.”

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tells the Herald and The Age: “The culture is shocking. Holding reviews is fine. They won’t do any harm, they may do some good.

“We do know what the problem is, right at the very heart of it is a lack of respect for women and that requires leadership and leadership by example.”

Since the prime ministership of Julia Gillard, where Australia’s first female prime minister was subjected to misogynistic attacks inside and outside parliament, there have been multiple instances of what is called Canberra’s “woman problem”.

In 2016, former Liberal minister Jamie Briggs quit his post after it emerged he had made unwanted physical advances on a female DFAT public servant during a trip to Hong Kong.

In February 2018, News Corp reports confirmed that then Nationals leader and deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was expecting a child with his former staffer Vikki Campion.

His extramarital affair with a staffer led to then prime minister Turnbull instituting a ban on ministers having sexual relationships with their staff.

Following the ousting of Turnbull by his own party in 2018, female Coalition members including lower house MP Julia Banks complained of sexist harassment and bullying by factional bosses during the ensuing leadership contest between Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

February 2018: It was the then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s extra-marital affair with a staffer that led to then-Prime Minister Turnbull instituting a ban on ministers having sexual relationships with their staff.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Morrison vowed to clean up the culture, instituting a review into Liberal Party culture which led to the establishment of a Code of Conduct (which some Liberal women slammed as “unenforceable”).

In 2019, the former chief of staff to Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt accused the minister of fostering a culture of bullying in his office, and in 2020 an ABC Four Corners program outed Liberal minister Alan Tudge’s affair with a female staffer and made allegations of an encounter between Attorney-General Christian Porter and a staffer, which he staunchly denied. The government criticised the program for anti-Coalition bias.

Ms Gillard released a statement calling for change and offered the expertise of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, which she chairs.

“I hugely admire Brittany Higgins’ courage in coming forward with her account of her rape in Parliament House,” Ms Gillard said.

“I am horrified both by the incident, and the aftermath. Ms Higgins’ bravery should lead to genuine change in the workplace culture within Parliament at all levels, and I support calls for an independent and comprehensive review.

“The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at ANU has already commenced work to develop an evidence based Code of Conduct for Parliament. The Institute will offer its expertise to assist with any review, enquiry, or work required to make Parliament a safe and supportive environment for all employees.

Turnbull says his introduction of the so-called “bonk ban” was met with resentment by many of his colleagues.

“There was a lot of sneering about me moralising and being a wowser,” Turnbull says.

“It was really about safe workplaces. If staffers see ministers and members hitting on younger members of their staff, it legitimises it. Ultimately leadership has responsibilities.”

NSW Liberal Women’s Council president Mary-Lou Jarvis says her focus is “on supporting and promoting Liberal women”.

“The distress experienced by Brittany Higgins and the sexual assault it is alleged she suffered at her work should make every workplace think about the protocols and policies they have in place to protect their staff or volunteers – not just political parties or Parliament House,” Jarvis says.

“It is not an opportunity for political point-scoring, as it’s so serious it needs all of us working together to help resolve.”

Failings revealed

But this week did descend into political point-scoring.

Senator Reynolds faced immediate criticism for failing to provide adequate support and counselling to Higgins in the aftermath of the alleged assault.

Initially the matter was treated as a “security breach” and the alleged perpetrator was reportedly sacked. Reynolds says she became aware “incrementally” that the incident was an alleged sexual assault. She says she supported Higgins to go to the police. Higgins made contact with police but says she felt pressured to choose between keeping her job and pursuing criminal charges, and decided against a formal police complaint.

She kept her job and moved to the office of Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. Cash also knew something had happened to Higgins, but says she was not aware it was an alleged sexual assault.

What did the Prime Minister’s office know? Higgins says at least three of the Prime Minister’s staff knew about the incident back in 2019. The official line from the Prime Minister’s office is they were only made aware of it last week. Morrison himself says he only learned of it on Monday, just before the story broke on news.com.au.

“I’ve received the advice from my office [that no one knew] and I asked my department to actually look into that advice so I can be assured,” Morrison said on Friday.

“I would like to know, if there was anything different here, I would like to know.”

But Turnbull says that “the proposition that the Prime Minister’s office did not know is just not believable. It also now appears to be not true.”

As reported by the Herald and Age on Friday, many of Reynolds’ colleagues have lost confidence in her judgment and believe she should step down.

“I don’t think she has been up to task on a number of fronts,” one Liberal MP told the Herald and The Age. Another colleague says Reynolds’ response to the alleged assault was “another example of poor judgment”, indicating the story had moved on to one of political culpability and consequences.

It is an open question whether the alleged sexual assault and its fallout will lead to substantial cultural or institutional reform.

Other parliaments have tried to clean up their cultures.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds became emotional during question time after earlier saying she was “deeply sorry” if her handling of sexual assault allegations has caused a former staff member distress.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The Victorian parliament is considering a proposal developed by law firm Lander and Rogers out of its own workplace culture review. It suggests parliament employ several “conduct officers” to receive and triage complaints as a first point of contact.

An external review of the New Zealand Parliament reported in May 2019 that “bullying and harassment are systemic” and involved “harmful behaviour by and between staff, managers, Members, media and the public”.

Reviewer Debbie Francis made 85 recommendations, including the appointment of an Independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Conduct with investigative powers.

Professor Marian Baird is an expert in gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney business school.

“Culture is an easy word to use and it doesn’t say much. You can only get to change by looking at structures in place,” she says.

“Parliament is a leading workplace. They have to be sure what they’re doing there is thorough and they do introduce substantive change.”

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