Allegations of Historical Sexual Assault in Parliament Will Not Be Investigated

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Parliament house in Canberra

Since Brittany Higgins made serious sexual assault allegations against a former colleague earlier this year, Parliament House has vowed to make changes.

As part of those changes, an independent body is being set up to deal with sexual assault and other sexual misconduct allegations, to make victims feel more comfortable and safe coming forward.

But there’s one problem: The independent committee won’t investigate historical complaints.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has confirmed that the body has been set up to provide now and into the future “a model that actually enables people to have confidence that their complaints can be heard and investigated,” but he added that the committee is “unlikely to go back through history indefinitely.”

Delayed complaints

This is a matter of concern to many because study after study has shown that the psychological impact of sexual abuse manifests very differently in victims, and it can take some people years to come to terms with what happened and gather the strength to come forward.

Ms Higgins and several other women who have come forward have each told a similar story of a misogynistic culture, ‘victim blaming’ a lack of support for complainants and coverups within Parliament House.

By not investigating historical complaints the new committee could be denying some victims, who have felt that their allegations would fall on deaf ears, the opportunity to have their complaints heard based on a timeframe or a deadline.

There are calls for the committee to at least encourage reporting so that incidents can be recorded.

Change is slow to come

For many though, the establishment of the committee is a positive announcement that something is finally emerging from the collection of internal inquiries launched by Scott Morrison earlier this year in response to escalating public outrage over his response to the allegations made by Brittany Higgins and others.

It has to be said though, that much needed change, appears to be very slow in coming.

Foster review

The “Foster review”, conducted by deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Stephanie Foster has been completed.

It found that the “serious incident” systems which encompass assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment and systemic bullying or harassment in use in parliamentary offices was deficient in three critical areas.

The review also counted 76 complaints made by employees or members of Parliament in less than four years. Five of these five of the complaints related to sexual harassment.

Multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by politicians

Police, on the other hand, recently told a Senate Inquiry that 19 allegations of misconduct involving parliamentarians, their staff or “official establishments” had been reported to them since Brittany Higgins went public earlier this year.

Celia Hammond’s review into Liberal party workplace culture was dumped early on, and ‘wrapped up’ into a broader review of workplace culture within Parliament House.

The Jenkins review, being undertaken by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins is unlikely to be completed until the end of the year.

Gaetjens review

And the Gaetjens review, being conducted by the secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department Philip Gaetjens which was started in February, still has an unclear reporting deadline.

It has been heavily criticised for taking more than 100 days to determine ‘who knew what and when’ about Brittany Higgin’s sexual assault allegation. Scott Morrison insisted that both he and his office were unaware of the rape allegation until February 2021 even though a number of senior figures in the government, such as former defence minister Linday Reynolds, were aware of Ms Higgins’ account of the incident.

The Gaetjens review was put on hold for several weeks at the behest of the Australian Federal Police who were concerned that it could overlap with their criminal investigation into the incident, but the inquiry has since received the go-ahead to resume although even when it is finalised, there is no guarantee that the report will be made public.

Police warn politicians

The Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police sent a stern letter to the Prime Minister in the weeks after Brittany Higgins made her allegations public, stating that those in positions of power in Canberra are not a ‘law unto themselves’ and that any “failure to report alleged criminal behaviour … or choosing to communicate or disseminate allegations via other means, such as through the media or third parties, risks prejudicing any subsequent police investigation.”

AFP is close to finalising its investigation into Higgins’ allegations

Brittany Higgins will find out within the coming weeks whether or not her sexual assault complaint will be prosecuted.

The Australian Federal Police have confirmed that they are close to handing a brief of evidence  to the ACT Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) which will then decide whether charges will be laid against the man Brittany Higgins has accused of sexually assaulting her in March 2019.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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