PM Apologises Over Parliamentary Sexual Abuse Scandal

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Parliament House in Canberra

In parliament recently, embattled Prime Minister Scott Morrison said sorry to Brittany Higgins. 

“I am sorry. We are sorry. I am sorry to Ms Higgins for the terrible things that took place here. And the place that should have been a place for safety and contribution, turned out to be a nightmare,” the Prime Minister said. 

“I am sorry for far more than that. All of those who came before Ms Higgins. We are sorry for all of these things, and in doing so, each of us take an accountability for change. For those of us who have perpetuated the bullying and violence, the light will come to those behaviours. As it must. But it will follow and respect the rule of law in this country. It will proceed on the basis of fairness and justice. It will be done in the proper way. Justice should come, and it should always be delivered under the rule of law.”

It’s reported that Brittany Higgins left the public gallery in tears. 

Pressure for change 

Victim advocate, and close friend of Ms Higgins, Grace Tame took to social media swiftly after the PM’s speech was over to voice her disdain, Tweeting: 

“How about some proactive, preventative measures and not just these performative, last-minute bandaid electioneering stunts?”

For many, the time for apologies has come …. and long gone. 

And it does irk somewhat that the apology was given because it is the first recommendation made by the review into Parliament’s toxic workplace culture by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. 

Nevertheless, it does mark an important day for Australian politics because both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have committed to change. 

Time for action 

And the Morrison Government is under intense public pressure and scrutiny to deliver it. Since Ms Higgins made allegations last year that she had been sexually assaulted by a colleague in one of the most secure, highly monitored buildings in Australia, many other women have come forward with their own stories of the insidious power games and the “boys club” that exists in the country’s highest form of Government.  

Scott Morrison’s original response to the allegations was heavily criticised, as was his typically applied response to any problem within government  which was to initiate a series of internal investigations. In the eyes of many, these simply delayed a real response – the need for action. 

However, he did garner some respect when he appointed Kate Jenkins to conduct the Set the Standard review into Commonwealth workplaces.  

The comprehensive review, which was conducted over several months last year found that bullying, harassment and abuse are ‘normalised’ within commonwealth workplaces. It also found that almost 40% of respondents in parliamentary workplaces reported that they had personally experienced bullying and 33% of people had personally experienced sexual harassment, with 1% experiencing an actual or attempted sexual assault.

The Jenkins’ report made 28 recommendations for change. The first of these, did not specifically state an apology, but it did strongly suggest that Parliament make a statement to acknowledge “the harm caused by bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault along with acknowledgement of the lack of action taken in the past to deal with misconduct and misbehaviour, and also commit to action to address the problem, with shared accountability.

Such an acknowledgement, Ms Jenkins has said, is a critical step towards rebuilding trust. 

No more platitudes 

Even so, with it now on public record, there must be a continued impetus towards implementing the other recommendations. 

Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, is charged with coordinating the response to the Jenkins review. He has said that legislation will be introduced to Parliament this week to address the report’s recommendations around how workplace and anti-discrimination laws apply to political staffers.

But with the May election looming, the Morrison Government won’t get away with cliches and platitudes. 

It must fix Commonwealth workplace culture, and also set a benchmark for all other Australian workplaces. The fact of the matter is that there are millions of voters around Australia who will consider their decision with regard to how much actual progress has been made by the time the booths open. 

Because what we do know, is that the issue of sexual harassment, bullying, misconduct and sexual assault in Australian workplaces didn’t start with Brittany Higgins. But what we really want is for her courage in standing up and bringing it to light not to be in vain. 

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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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