Starting a National Conversation: Why the Brittany Higgins case is so significant
[TW: this article contains content regarding sexual assault]
The alleged rape of Brittany Higgins in March 2019 has sparked a national conversation about an ostensible culture of misogyny within the Australian Parliament. Since the release of Ms Higgins’ formal complaint on February 24 this year, the additional testimonies of three women who were also allegedly sexually assaulted by members of the Liberal Party have made apparent a toxic pattern of systemic sexism, the priority of political self-interest and dangerous silence in the Australian government.
Brittany Higgins was a media advisor to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds when a senior male staffer in Reynolds' team allegedly raped her in Parliament House on March 22, 2019. When Higgins informed the Director of Operations, Fiona Brown, three days after the incident, she received minimal support and the claim was not forwarded to the police with Brown arguing that there were sufficient ‘internal mechanisms were already at play’. Higgins was also denied access to the CCTV videos which captured the moments before her assault, despite Fiona and other colleagues having viewed the footage.
Minister Linda Reynolds held a meeting with Brown and Higgins in her office the following week (the scene of the assault), offering an apology for what had taken place. Higgins was offered six weeks paid leave to finish her contract with no renewal. Ultimately, she was relocated to Minster Reynolds’ team based in Western Australia. Brittany’s alleged perpetrator was sacked in the days after the assault but obtained employment with a public relations firm in Sydney. There has been no acknowledgement as to why he left parliament.
Brittany’s sexual assault case is salient due to its occurrence within parliamentary setting which does not act under standard Australian Federal Police guidelines. A specific unit of the AFP is deployed inside Parliament House that functions separately to the ACT police. Thus, when Brittany’s claim was made to her superiors, an internal police force was given authority to act two weeks after her complaint and without acknowledgement by ACT police. However, as an ABC Four Corners report revealed, police culture inside the government often answers to politicians instead of their superiors at the AFP, allowing employees to prioritise their public image and reputation over a moral code to report illegal behaviour. These individuals who act in self-interest reveal that the pressure of politics often places public relations first and a duty of care second.
The main reason for this, as outlined by the Four Corners Report, was that Parliament intentionally creates laws and regulations to limit interference from outside sources. The result, however, is that Parliamentarians often act freely without consistent consequences, or skirt their responsibilities to address scandals for the sake of good public relations. Ultimately, even when third party AFP detectives were given access to Ms Higgins’ case, they had difficulty accessing the CCTV footage from the night of the alleged assault as it was still being protected by politicians with alternate agendas. Higgins dropped the police investigation on April 13 2019 after admitting to The Project that her employment with Minister Reynolds may have been terminated if she persisted with the case.
Following the media’s coverage of Higgins’ rape, three new women came forward alleging being assaulted by the same male staffer. All three women remain anonymous with the second and third women identifying as a former Liberal staff member and a Coalition Party volunteer respectively. Ultimately, by sharing their cases, they hope to reveal the toxic and criminal behaviour that is considered permissible in Parliament House. The woman behind the second allegation even suggested that she may not have been assaulted if the AFP and Parliament House had responded appropriately and supported Higgins’ allegations. The fourth woman spoke out about the same staffer who touched her inappropriately during a work gathering at a bar in 2017, recalling him as being ‘really sleazy’.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to the Brittany Higgins incident has caused increased controversy and tension between the Parliament and public. Initially, Morrison endorsed the police units’ management of the situation, despite Brittany stating that the police were minimally supportive and that she had difficulties acquiring the required CCTV footage. Morrison also stated that he was unaware of the incident until February 12 2021. However, a text message revealing that the Prime Minister's Office had been notified in the week following the assault and were ‘mortified’, casts doubt on Morrison’s claim.
Perhaps the most controversial comment made by Morrison was in response to the rape allegations on February 16 2021, where he stated that his wife Jenny had enabled him to empathise with Brittany by prompting him to imagine how he would respond if his daughters had suffered in a similar way. This anecdote received enormous backlash with the most prominent concern being that the Prime Minister seemingly only considered the crime reprehensible because he is a father of daughters. Journalist Lisa Wilkinson questioned that if the Prime Minister needs his wife to guide his reaction to a rape allegation, then is it evidence that he too has fallen victim to the misogynistic culture that presides in Parliament House.
Analysing Brittany’s assault and the responses from the Australian Federal Police, former female staffers and the Prime Minister, it has become clear that there is a culture of systemic sexism and misconduct in Australian Parliament. Evidence of this culture is far-reaching. From implications that public office is a man’s job, Canberra’s intense and well-acknowledged drinking and party culture and its isolation from the rest of Australia which requires parents to be away from home for extended periods; to the underrepresentation of women in executive positions (there are currently only seven in Morrison’s cabinet), the ‘bonk ban’ which attempts to prevent sexual relations between MPs and their staff, and Morrison’s ‘manterruption’ where he cut off Minister Ruston during a question about a woman’s experience in parliament.
This culture that is so hostile to women was particularly evident in the term of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who was frequently battered with sexist remarks about her status as an unmarried and childless woman, suggestions that her womanhood was a deficiency in her leadership and the infamous and shocking, ‘ditch the witch’ media representation - all of which was confronted in her 2012 misogyny speech.
The ABC Four Corners documentary, Inside the Canberra Bubble, attempted to reveal the culture of silence in the parties, where speaking out against issues during campaign season was likened to ‘letting the team down’. Former Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller also spoke of her experiences of ‘putting her head down and not getting in the way’ in order to avoid conflict and maintain her employment. This tradition of not speaking out against sexist behaviour has ultimately allowed it to thrive, making Canberra especially discouraging for women due to the minimal security and lack of trusted authorities.
Brittany Higgins has since reopened the police investigation into her allegation. This has prompted five new inquiries including two inquiries on workplace culture, a support process for government staffers who were aware of the initial Higgins allegations and an official police inquiry into the perpetrator. Whilst this signifies incredible progress compared to Higgins’ first experiences in 2019, the systemic issues of a parliamentary culture are still evident in Canberra and will require a collective top-down approach tightening regulations and effort from every employee to promote a safer and equal environment.
This article was originally published as part of YDS' International Women's Day anthology. You can read Isha's article in the anthology here: https://www.theyoungdiplomats.com/special-editions
Isha Desai is a first-year student studying Politics & International Relations/Political Economy at the University of Sydney. She is particularly interested in the analysis and implementation of public policy and foreign policy.