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As more details emerge of how the government handled Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape, crossbenchers are calling for a permanent independent body to examine abuse accusations. By Karen Middleton.

Tracing the Brittany Higgins case

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.
Credit: Supplied

In Parliament House, the phones are ringing. Former staff recount, to those willing to listen, how they were bullied, sexually harassed and forced out of their jobs with no proper recourse.

Those receiving the calls, including independent MPs Zali Steggall and Helen Haines, and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie, have told the government things need to change.

The three crossbench MPs are among those who want to dismantle what has been labelled a don’t-ask-don’t-tell culture that has long permeated the halls of Parliament House.

They believe the proposed independent inquiry into the parliamentary workplace is the way to do that.

Sharkie wants that inquiry to consider a mandatory reporting code inside the parliamentary precinct, so anyone witnessing bullying, harassment or evidence of sexual assault is legally obliged to speak up.

“I really think there’s merit in exploring that,” Sharkie tells The Saturday Paper. “We expect it of childcare workers on the minimum wage.”

Steggall says there needs to be “a real flushing out of all of the experiences and all the stories”.

She, Sharkie and Haines have had calls from former staff across the political spectrum.

“And not only from staffers but people associated with coming to the building,” says Haines. “People who are associated with other groups, people who mix with MPs and their staff. So, if I’m thinking about a terms of reference then it needs to be broad reaching, so [it includes] anyone who has a professional reason to be in Canberra in the federal parliament.”

Steggall says that includes “the press gallery, young lobbyists for a not-for-profit organisation, bright-eyed, idealistic… Where would they go to with their complaint?”

A mandatory reporting code might have delivered a very different outcome for Brittany Higgins, a former ministerial staffer who alleges she was raped by a more senior colleague in the early hours of Saturday, March 23, 2019, on the couch in the office of 

their boss, Linda Reynolds, then Defence Industry minister.

The former staffer’s case has prompted long-called-for government action.

Questions persist about how it could be possible that the prime minister, who famously keeps a very close eye on anything likely to cause political controversy, was not informed about the rape until two weeks ago. That was two years after it is alleged to have occurred shortly before the 2019 federal election, four days after Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton learnt of the claims and between days and years after members of his staff did.

Parliamentary culture flourishes in a hard-drinking, late-nights atmosphere of information trading, networking and political trickery revolving around the pursuit, retention and wielding of power.

Maintaining this is a system that sees MPs operate like small-business employers, with no managerial training and no proper job descriptions for their staff.

Promotion and termination arrangements are opaque, based on patronage and political interests and with a pointless human resources process centred around the Department of Finance and what is known as the Members of Parliament Staff (MOPS) Act.

“I would compare it to Survivor island,” Zali Steggall says.

“It’s very much a culture of people eating their young,” says Helen Haines.

The HR process sees complaints about unacceptable office behaviour directed back to the boss who oversaw – or in some cases, engaged in – it. There is no provision for penalising MPs, even if complaints are upheld. The results of investigations into complaints are kept from the people who made them, on privacy grounds.

Staff who are seen as a problem, sometimes because they have raised issues of concern, are managed out with little to no recourse. The mental health impact on these people can be severe. The system spits them out, in many cases without so much as a backward glance from the political parties and politicians they served – and sometimes with a backhander in the form of threats to sabotage future work prospects.

The same system has permitted sexually inappropriate behaviour – including, allegedly, criminal offences – protecting and promoting perpetrators while shaming and shattering those they choose to victimise. It leaves some young political operatives, journalists and others who work within parliament disillusioned and damaged. It’s been that way for decades.

Some facts around Higgins’ case are public and agreed, some are unknown and some disputed. Serious questions remain about how her allegations were handled and whether, as some suggest, political expediency was prioritised above the welfare of a traumatised young woman. Higgins believes it was and that she was not shown the care her employers were obliged to give.

 

Brittany Higgins was just 24 and had started in Reynolds’ office, three weeks before she arranged Friday night drinks with some new colleagues and invited the adviser to join them.

As she tells it, he bought her many drinks and, when she wound up inebriated, offered to help her get home.

She recalls him diverting their taxi to Parliament House, saying he needed to pick up something from the office. Rather than leave her in the cab with the meter running, he persuaded her to accompany him inside.

He had to sign Higgins in, as she didn’t have her pass, and a security guard unlocked the office for them. Closed-circuit television camera footage – to which Higgins has been refused access – would later reportedly confirm her heavily intoxicated state.

This point is important in the subsequent politicking around what happened that night. There is a constituency that has little sympathy for Brittany Higgins because she was drunk.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison seemed to hint at that inclination when he declared his wife, Jenny, had suggested he might think about how he would feel if such a thing happened to one of his daughters.

On that Friday in March 2019, once they were inside the office, Higgins says the adviser was taking so long with whatever he was doing that she ended up lying on the minister’s couch. She can’t recall whether that was her idea or his.

The alleged rape began while she was unconscious. She says he ignored her pleas for him to stop. Another unnamed woman has since alleged the same man later did a similar thing to her at her Sydney home.

Security footage at Parliament House on the night of the alleged rape records the male adviser leaving the building alone. Some time later, a security guard went to check the office and found Higgins, partially undressed. It seems guards may have checked on her several times during the night before she eventually woke about 10am on Saturday. Last week, Higgins told Channel Ten’s The Project she was horrified when she realised she was in the office.

Security guards reported the late-night entry to the Department of Parliamentary Services, which then alerted the Department of Finance.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said this week that Mathias Cormann, Finance minister at the time of Higgins' alleged assault, had not been notified. It is not clear whether the department notified the then special minister of state, Alex Hawke, a close factional ally of Prime Minister Morrison.

But on the Saturday afternoon, Finance sent in the cleaners. Exactly who ordered the steam cleaning and why is yet to be fully explained.

Linda Reynolds’ chief of staff and the Department of Defence were also notified. The following Tuesday, when Reynolds’ chief of staff, Fiona Brown, arrived in the office, she called meetings with the two staff involved.

The more senior adviser went in first. After about 45 minutes, he emerged, cleared out his desk and left, fired for what Reynolds would only describe to the senate last week as “a security breach”.

This week, journalists were backgrounded that he alone was sacked because it was not the first such security issue involving him. Higgins was reportedly spared because she was new and had not transgressed before. The man would go on to secure a new job with a Sydney public relations firm, based on the recommendation of at least two unnamed referees.

When Higgins was called in to speak with Brown, she recounted what had happened, vocalising for the first time that what had allegedly occurred was rape.

The next day, March 27, Higgins spoke to the Australian Federal Police security unit based at Parliament House, mostly seeking advice. She says they seemed already aware of details and filled in some gaps in the sequence that she had not known.

Over the next few days, the prime minister’s office became involved in what has been described as the paperwork surrounding the male adviser’s termination.

Morrison’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, and adviser Daniel Wong were seen going in and out of the office of Fiona Brown. The government maintains this was related to the security breach by the male adviser and nothing else.

Reynolds has told the senate she became aware “incrementally, over a number of days” of what Higgins said had happened.

On April 1, five days after Higgins and the male adviser were first questioned, Reynolds met with Brown and Higgins. By then the minister was aware of the alleged assault. Their meeting was held in the room where the alleged offence took place, something Reynolds says she had not known at the time and now regrets.

She also said she met the same day with an AFP assistant commissioner to discuss the issue and had another such meeting on April 4. Reynolds subsequently corrected the record to say only one AFP meeting occurred, on April 4 – a meeting of which Brittany Higgins was unaware.

In between, on April 3, Higgins received a text message from a friend who had contacted the prime minister’s office (PMO) on her behalf.

“Spoke to PMO,” the message said. "He was mortified to hear about it and how things have been handled. He’s going to discuss with COS [chief of staff] – no one else. I flagged need for councillor (sic) and need to be closer to home during election.”

Last week, Morrison rebuked Reynolds publicly for not informing him of Higgins’ allegations, insisting his staff had become aware of the alleged rape only when questions were lodged with the government on February 12, three days before the story broke. This is despite Fiona Brown having shifted after the election from Reynolds’ office to the prime minister’s.

It is also despite the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, having contacted Higgins around the time Four Corners aired its “The Canberra Bubble” investigation in November last year, reportedly to check on her welfare.

Reynolds’ job is now potentially under threat. After giving the senate a short update on the sequence of events on Thursday last week, the minister broke down during question time. In tears and struggling to speak, she could not answer an unrelated question and pleaded to be allowed to respond when parliament resumed the following Monday – something seemingly without precedent, certainly in recent times.

Reynolds insists she always encouraged Higgins to formalise her statement to police but had respected her “privacy and agency” when the young woman had opted not to do so.

Higgins says she was made to feel like she had to choose between reporting it and staying employed. Three weeks out from the federal budget and the election campaign, she chose the latter.

After the election, Higgins took a new position in Employment minister Michaelia Cash’s office, resigning in late January this year. Cash’s role is also somewhat unclear. She became embroiled in the issue when a journalist from The Canberra Times lodged questions with the AFP in March last year about the alleged incident in the ministerial wing in 2019.

Cash’s decision not to appear at a senate estimates hearing shortly afterwards may have been related to concerns about answering those questions.

Higgins left Cash’s office on February 5 this year and the next day spoke to police again, advising there might be some media attention around her departure and saying she wanted to ensure that did not compromise any future investigation. She also expressed her concern about confidentiality and was given an assurance.

Higgins then spoke to news.com.au journalist Samantha Maiden, who published her story on February 15.

In the meantime, under protocols that require notification of anything politically sensitive, her police call was reported up the chain, ultimately to the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, on February 11.

The sequence of events now known has raised many questions. The prime minister insists he did not know about the alleged rape until Maiden’s story appeared online.

But other facts challenge that, as do those familiar with previous and contemporary practice underpinning what is a strict “no surprises” political rule.

Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, says it is “not credible” to suggest the prime minister had not been informed.

The PM has initiated what Greens deputy leader Larissa Waters has described as “a confetti” of inquiries to try to stem the political damage.

The first three are effectively in-house. He has departmental secretary Phil Gaetjens, who formerly worked for him, investigating his office’s role. Morrison has repeatedly refused to say whether Gaetjens’ report will be made public, now describing it as a cabinet document.

The prime minister has also assigned departmental deputy secretary Stephanie Foster to report on where the wider system failed in Higgins’ case. He had asked Liberal backbench MP Celia Hammond, who hails from Reynolds’ home state of Western Australia, to look at any lessons for the Liberal Party. But this week, Hammond asked to delay her inquiry until the completion of a fourth – the only independent one, initiated at the request of Labor, the Greens and the crossbenchers – examining parliamentary workplace culture.

Simon Birmingham is drafting terms of reference and is expected next week to appoint a lead investigator. Birmingham has confirmed he has consulted the Australian Human Rights Commission’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, who published a comprehensive review of workplace sexual harassment, “Respect at Work”, last year.

Birmingham is also consulting interested parties across the parliament about what should be included. Some former staff who allege sexual assault, harassment and bullying have contacted him to offer their input.

Common demands include that there be a mechanism to receive information from former and serving staff and others working in and around Parliament House and that the findings be made public.

Larissa Waters urged the minister to set a six-month deadline. It is understood that is his intention.

“I pushed for there to be milestones and interim reports to keep the pressure up because this should not be a ‘let’s kick this off into the long grass, post-election’,” Waters says. She hopes it would recommend an independent complaints body for staff.

Steggall, Haines and Sharkie also want to see such a body so there is an independent process for investigating complaints, which doesn’t require accusers to go to police or start legal proceedings if they don’t wish to do so – or if the allegation doesn’t rise to the level of criminal behaviour.

“So, an allegation can be investigated before it gets to that,” Steggall says.

They also want Higgins’ alleged incident examined as part of the inquiry, looking beyond what police will investigate to what Haines calls “the whole Swiss cheese investigation approach of how this place operates, what the structural impediments are to decency and a safe workplace”.

“Very early on there were clear failures,” says Sharkie of Higgins’ treatment. “Anyone would walk into this building and they would think they were very safe in here, there are security guards everywhere, there are people looking very official, and yet I don’t think that’s quite true.”

In a letter to Simon Birmingham, seen by The Saturday Paper, Labor’s shadow special minister of state Don Farrell called for unbiased, confidential advice to be made available to staff and MPs and properly resourced counselling services. Labor also wants proper training for both MPs and staff on workplace behaviour and management.

Farrell said inquiry participants should be “guaranteed confidentiality” and there should be clear protocols around protecting information and referring allegations to police and support services.

Senator Pauline Hanson also gave Birmingham suggestions. Her adviser James Ashby brought a 2012 sexual harassment case against his former boss, Peter Slipper, who was at the time speaker of the house.

“There has been a terrible culture going on in Parliament House and it’s been allowed to go on under both political parties,” Hanson told The Saturday Paper. “…It’s a lot broader than that incident … I think the behaviour of the men of parliament here is deplorable and it shouldn’t be tolerated.”

Now no longer employed, Higgins formalised her complaint to police on Wednesday, initiating an investigation of the alleged rape.

On the same day, six days after she broke down in the senate, Linda Reynolds suddenly cancelled a scheduled lunchtime appearance at the National Press Club and was admitted to hospital. She was suffering a heart condition, exacerbated by stress.

Brittany Higgins posted a message on social media, wishing the minister well – arguably the most gracious act of the whole two-year episode.

 

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "Full account: Tracing the Brittany Higgins case".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.