Dozens of current and former staff for powerful federal politicians have demanded changes to the sexual harassment inquiry set up by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, fearing its current framework could “exacerbate trauma” of survivors and expose details of their experiences.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has also written to the PM, saying the welfare of their staff “must be our only priority”.
A “bipartisan group”, including women and men, have written a joint letter to Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese, calling to tighten the privacy protections around the inquiry. They warn that staffers may be afraid to participate in the probe by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, unless there is “urgent” law change.
“There is currently no guarantee that information submitted will remain private,” read the letter, sent to Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese, and obtained by The New Daily.
“As you have both said publicly, it is important that as many people as possible participate in the Review. To do this, current and former staff must have confidence in the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s ability to ensure privacy for participants in the immediate future and in the long-term.”
Current and former staff of multiple senior Coalition and Labor politicians have signed the letter. The New Daily has decided not to name them. Also among the supporters are Lucy Turnbull and Thérèse Rein, the wives of former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd.
Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, whose bombshell allegations of being raped inside the Parliament House office of her then-boss Linda Reynolds kick-started the current conversation about women in politics, also put her name to the letter.
Signatories to the letter say they are worried that submissions may be able to be obtained by journalists or the public under Freedom Of Information laws. Staff are also concerned that the Archives Act, under which important public documents are released after 20 years, may expose personal details in future.
“It may significantly damage a victim’s career at the time and cause retraumatisation,” the letter said.
The letter was shared through Facebook groups for staffers on Wednesday, including the Elizabeth Reid Network page – the same site on which explosive allegations were aired of serious sexual assault and harassment against current senior Labor staff and politicians.
Signatories said they worried that the release of information could “exacerbate trauma”.
“We are concerned that even if names are redacted, details of submissions could still lead to the identification of victims – or the alleged perpetrators. For example, particular details being provided could of course point to individuals, periods of time or their employers,” the letter said.
Separately, TND has spoken to multiple staff in both major parties in recent weeks, who expressed hesitation about participating in the inquiry.
One young female staffer, who works for a senior Labor politician, said she and colleagues were concerned that due to gossip inside Parliament House and the ‘Canberra bubble’, that even anonymised complaints could be traced back to the complainant.
Several others said they would not be participating in the inquiry, despite having serious experiences to share, due to its current setup.
TND understands Ms Jenkins addressed a meeting of a Labor women’s group on Tuesday night, seeking to alleviate concerns about privacy.
Ms Jenkins said she had already received submissions from some staff, and urged people to participate in the inquiry.
The open letter calls for “urgent bipartisan cooperation”, including “legislative changes”.
It does not specifically detail exactly what laws they want amended, but the letter does raise concerns that the Australian Human Rights Commission is subject to the Freedom Of Information Act and the Archives Act.
TND understands the letter’s organisers were preparing to officially send the document to Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese on Wednesday night. At last count, it had nearly 80 signatures, including around 60 people who put their names to it, and another 15 who declined to give their names.
Before the letter was even sent, Mr Albanese himself also wrote to Mr Morrison, pledging his support for the changes demanded by staff. On Tuesday, Mr Albanese wrote “we must ensure our staff have full confidence in the confidentiality of their submissions”.
Ms Jenkins said in an interview last week she had “never seen any moment like this”, in terms of a discussion or push for change around sexism, power imbalance and abuse.
- For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 13 11 14