An investigation into how the Liberal Party deals with sexual assault is “long overdue”, according to the woman who alleges she was raped inside the Defence Minister’s office, with questions raised over why Scott Morrison did not act sooner.
“Everyone should feel safe to report sexual assault without fear of losing their job. These incidents shouldn’t have to play out in the media for change to happen,” former Coalition staffer Brittany Higgins told The New Daily.
“It should not have taken my story, or the story of other victim-survivors to air on national television for the Prime Minister – or any member of Parliament – to take action on workplace sexual harassment, assault or bullying.”
The Labor Party has called for a “truly independent” review into workplace culture in federal politics, conducted “by an expert from outside of government”.
On Monday, Ms Higgins made explosive allegations that she was raped by a colleague inside Parliament House in 2019, on the couch of her then-boss Linda Reynolds.
She told News Corp and The Project she felt pressured not to report the incident to police, and was further traumatised when a formal employment meeting after the incident was held in the room where the assault allegedly occurred.
The incident was initially treated as a parliamentary security breach.
Ms Higgins said she was intoxicated and had been taken back to the office by her then-colleague late at night after a function.
She is now considering police action.
“I unreservedly apologise to Brittany Higgins,” Senator Reynolds said in Parliament on Tuesday, admitting that more “should have been done” to help her former staff member.
On Tuesday morning, Mr Morrison asked his staff to launch two investigations and reviews; one where Coalition members will look to improve workplace standards and better protect their staff, and a second by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to review processes for workplace complaints.
An automatic reporting obligation to department officials will be introduced.
“We have to do more, whether it’s in this workplace or any other workplace in the country, to ensure people can work safely in their place,” Mr Morrison said, also offering an apology to Ms Higgins.
Shortly after the PM’s commitment, Ms Higgins said she wanted to see change inside Parliament.
“I shared my story yesterday because I didn’t want what happened to me, to happen to anyone else. I note the apology from the Prime Minister in the media this morning and thank him for this,” she said.
“The Prime Minister’s announcement of an investigation into the culture in Parliament House is a welcomed first step, though it is long overdue.”
Despite thanking the PM, Ms Higgins claimed nobody from the government had directly reached out to her in recent days.
Ms Higgins said she hoped to see “a comprehensive review” of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, which governs how staff are treated while employed in politics.
“There needs to be an independent reporting mechanism for staff where they can confidently and safely make complaints – similar to processes in many other workplaces in Australia and abroad,” she said.
“Political parties also need to conduct their own internal reviews and establish formal accountability processes. As we all know, this isn’t a problem confined to one side of politics.”
Ms Higgins has turned down multiple offers for further interviews from major media outlets, and has asked for her privacy to be respected “as I begin to emotionally recover from this difficult period”.
Questions are also being raised about Mr Morrison’s claims not to have known about the alleged incident until Monday morning.
The New Daily understands questions about Ms Higgins’ allegations were put to his office days earlier.
She says people who now work in the Prime Minister’s office – although they did not at the time – were aware of the allegations in early 2019.
“That matter came later and was being dealt with within the [defence] minister’s office. And on an anonymous basis, ultimately,” Mr Morrison said on Monday.
“That matter was not, at that point, brought to our attention, because the matter then didn’t proceed to a police investigation.”
On Tuesday morning, he claimed his wider office learned of the allegations only “within the last couple of weeks”.
However, in Question Time later, he said his office learned of the claims on February 12.
Mr Morrison then claimed he himself did not learn of the incident until the initial report was published online at 8.30am Monday, insinuating that nobody in his office told him about the report between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.
Mr Morrison said he was “not happy” that he was not informed of the incident earlier, explaining it by saying it was “a judgment made about the balance of protecting Brittany’s privacy at the time”.
Labor has called for a bipartisan review “into the workplace culture at Parliament House and electorate offices”.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and shadow minister for women Tanya Plibersek said it “must be truly independent with bipartisan oversight” and “led by an expert from outside of government”.
“Staff should be given the opportunity to participate fully and for their voices to be heard in a confidential and respectful way,” the Labor pair said.
Mr Albanese and Ms Plibersek have demanded “a clear focus on cultural change”.