The PM shouldn't need to think 'like a father' to combat parliament's sordid culture of sexual misconduct

The PM shouldn’t need to think ‘like a father’ to combat parliament’s sordid culture of sexual misconduct

parliament

Thousands of Australians would have heard Brittany Higgins’ harrowing story on The Project last night.

The former Liberal political staffer spoke out publicly yesterday, about allegedly being raped by a male colleague in the weeks preceding the 2019 federal election.

Higgins, who was just 24 at the time, found herself inebriated after a night out with workmates. She left a bar with a colleague, returned to Parliament House and fell asleep on a couch in then boss and defence industry minister, Linda Reynolds’ office. Horrified, she alleges that she awoke to find the man on top of her.

While a traumatised Higgins reported the alleged assault at the time, she inevitably decided not to pursue a police complaint for fear it would jeopardise her role.

“We were already coming up against so many blocks and I realised my job was on the line. I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” she said.

She also felt pressure not to “let the team down” just ahead of a critical election.

“There is a strange culture of silence in the parties … The idea of speaking out on these sorts of issues, especially around an [election] campaign, is just like letting the team down, you are not a team player,” she told The Project’s Lisa Wilkinson.

Those senior to Higgins who were aware of what had happened, gave her essentially two options: return home to the Gold Coast to cope independently or transfer to the Minister’s home state of Western Australia to campaign from there. According to Higgins, there was a definite sense that staying in Canberra was now out of the equation. The risk of keeping her there was too great.

Reluctant to give up what she described as her “dream job”, Higgins chose the latter. She moved to WA for the campaign period, where she felt isolated and tormented by thoughts of her horrific experience.

“I was a part of Minister Reynolds’s WA-based team, up in a hotel room, but we were sort of working seven days a week. I was pretty suicidal to be honest at the time, because you are just alone. It was really hard.”

After repeatedly requesting that the CCTV footage from Reynolds’ office the night of her alleged assault be released, Higgins’ began to realise that she was being purposely denied.

“It went from the very front entrance of where the taxi would have stopped all the way through going through security all the way up to the suite,” she said.

“I knew that one of my other colleagues had seen it … so it was the strange thing where it felt like everyone had all this information on my own assault and I didn’t have any and I desperately wanted to see it.

“I asked at least half a dozen times to see that CCTV … it really hurt, it felt like a betrayal for them to withhold this one really small thing I needed just personally to process, to move on or just to understand what had happened to me.”

By this stage, she understood that the support she required would not be offered freely. Her presence made the Minister uncomfortable at events, and she felt considerable pressure to shake off the unshakeable.

After a brief stint working for Employment Minister Michaelia Cash– a position Higgins felt obligated to take– she resigned.

“I think that resigning is the only thing I can personally do to say that I don’t think anyone else should go through what I went through,” she said.

But of course, Brittany Higgins is not the only woman in recent times to allege sexual misconduct in parliament. Nor is she the only woman to have it hinder her career.

A Four Corners report last year painted a disturbing picture of parliamentary culture. With accounts from several female victims, the report pointed the finger at senior men in government ranks— Christian Porter and Alan Tudge– accusing the pair of predatory behaviour, sexism, exploitation and habitual cover-ups.

Rachelle Miller, a senior staffer who had an affair with Minister Tudge felt pressure to resign when their relationship broke down. This was the same sorry story for Barnaby Joyce’s now partner, Vikki Campion and for the junior staffer who had had an alleged affair with Minister Porter.

Higgins’ experience is even worse. A victim of rape, she was left to deal with her trauma away from family, friends and necessary support networks. Her resignation was shamefully inevitable.

Such accounts point to the fact that talented women are dispensable to this government and a gross unwillingness to protect them prevails.

Upon hearing the news of Brittany Higgins’ traumatic experience yesterday, Scott Morrison’s wife Jen instructed her husband to take the situation seriously, and consider his response should this have occurred to one of his own daughters.

But this kind of perspective shows the limitations of our government leadership and its ideology surrounding women.

The Prime Minister should not need this kind of exercise in “imagination” to feel sheer horror over what happened to Brittany Higgins. As a human, not as a father, he should have heard her story yesterday and been kicked into gear.

But of course, that won’t happen.

Instead, Morrison will defend how the situation was handled. He’ll feign a few feeble attempts of “dadly” support before chalking this all up to an anomaly; sweeping the mess under the rug in expert fashion. Call me a cynic, but we’ve seen it all before.

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