Scott Morrison says he is “disturbed” and “very upset” by allegations published over the weekend that the same man who is alleged to have sexually assaulted Brittany Higgins in Parliament in 2019 went on to commit the same offence against another former Liberal staff the very next year.
The second woman says the man sexually assaulted her at her home after an evening of dinner and drinks.
Now, a third victim has come forward, who alleges she was assaulted by the same man in 2016 after a night of drinking with the then-political staffer while volunteering for the Coalition’s 2016 election campaign.
Both women wish to remain anonymous but have told their stories in an act of solidarity with Ms Higgins who has in recent days “re-engaged” with the Australian Federal Police, saying she wants a “comprehensive police investigation … and for my perpetrator to face the full force of the law.”
With the police investigations now underway, many of those who have information have shut down in fear of jeopardising that investigation.
PM denies knowledge
For his part, The Prime Minister continues to deny that neither he, nor anyone from his office, knew anything about the incident involving Brittany Higgins prior to a week or so ago, when the bombshell dropped.
The denial seems extraordinary when so many other people knew about the reports.
When pressed on the issue in the House of Representatives, Mr Morrison said: “If someone has worked in another office, they have been bound by the issues in that office, particularly when they are working in an office of a sensitive nature in the defence portfolio.”
But many are of the view that this is not a defence issue, that it’s an alleged serious criminal offence occurring within the Parliament House itself, and that as former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put it:
“I find it inconceivable that that wasn’t well-known to at least key members of the Prime Minister’s staff”.
“If it wasn’t, there was clearly an absolutely baffling breakdown in communications.”
“It strains credulity.”
The fact that there are still so many unanswered questions also points to a lack of concern, lack of accountability mechanisms and a culture of ‘doing what’s in the best interests of the party at all costs’.
The Prime Minister has announced a number of internal inquiries – four in total – that will look into procedural matters relating to sexual discrimination and harassment complaints processes, as well as other workplace culture issues.
The first is being led by Stephanie Foster, a deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It will look at the processes in place for dealing with complaints from staff.
The second is being run by Liberal backbencher Celia Hammond. She is examining what can be done to improve working conditions for parliamentary staff in the Coalition.
The third is a cross-party process that will examine what can be done to better support staff in Canberra.
The fourth inquiry is to be led by Phil Gaetjens, aiming to find out what and when staff in the Prime Minister’s Office knew about Ms Higgins’ complaint, potentially going so far as to look at phone records.
Mr Gaetjens, who is the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, also led an internal investigation into the Sports Rort scandal last year, the findings of which were kept secret, with the government only releasing part of the final report. The subsequent ANAO inquiry into the Sports Rort scandal countered several of the claims made about the program by Mr Gaetjens in his review.
The question is not one of competency, but whether Mr Gaetjens is in a position where he can be truly impartial, and also whether he is adequately resourced enough to be completely independent and able to conduct the kind of review that this situation demands. A young woman has accused a male colleague of rape in one of the most secure, heavily monitored buildings in Australia.
The media spotlight has also turned briefly to Dhanya Mani and Chelsey Potter over recent days. Two former Liberal Party staff members who say they too, were sexually assaulted, several years ago.
Dhanya Mani has spoken publicly about the fact that she was sexually harassed for months by a man before he sexually assaulted her. Both women made complaints to responsible people within the Liberal Party and the Liberal Party did nothing.
The Liberal Party is not singled out, either. Virtually all of the major Australian political parties have faced scandals relating to sexual harassment in recent years.
Years of research confirms that legislatures continue to be hostile work environments for women. In Australia, research by Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, for instance, has detailed multiple instances of sexism and sexual harassment in the Australian Federal Parliament.
But surely, this must be a critical turning point. In the aftermath of #MeToo, women, who tend to be by far the majority of victims, are finding their voices, demanding higher standards from their employers and want to be guaranteed safe workplaces.
What’s required now is decisive action and zero tolerance for the misogynistic culture that seems to exist within all levels of government, so that it’s extinguished once and for all, and so that the politicians can set an example for other workplaces grappling with the same issue.