Recently, the allegations of rape made by four women have rocked the Australian political scene, unfolding a very disturbing picture of how women are being treated within politics and how such allegations, when raised are usually silenced (Stayner, 2021). Notably, the claim made by Brittany Higgins, a former staffer for current Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, has shocked the Australian public with how sexual assault not only occurred within government premises, but also with how Ms Higgins was belittled by, her then boss, Linda Reynolds. Being called a “lying cow” by Reynolds, Ms Higgins was left feeling ultimately ‘silenced’ by the Liberal Party (Mao, 2021). Reynolds states that she had offered support for her then aide, Ms Higgins, to approach the police, however Ms Higgins decided that she would not approach authorities in fear of losing her job. Ms Higgins’ bravery in coming forward with her sexual assault has led to the several other women within the political sphere to come out and share their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment (Mao, 2021). While these stories paint the Morrison Government in an unfavourable light, in which the Government is trying to patch things up by announcing a review into workplace culture at parliament, it begs the question of what kind of culture is being established within the already male-dominated political sector and how we can prevent such distressing events happening in the future.
After witnessing PM Scott Morrison celebrating the activism of a sexual assault survivor in January, Ms Higgins decided that it was time to speak out about the sexual assault she endured during her time serving as a political aide to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, feeling that she had been betrayed by the Morrison Government, who was complicit in silencing her from coming forward with her story (Mao, 2021). On February 15th, Ms Higgins spoke out against the Morrison Government, leading to great public backlash against the Morrison Government, who assert that they did not know about the alleged rape until February 12th this year. Morrison’s response to Ms Higgins’ claim was further scrutinised as he mentioned that it was unfortunate that Ms Higgins found herself in a “vulnerable situation” and that his wife, Jenny, had to remind him to look at this situation as a “father” and “imagine if it was [his] girls” (Glenday et al., 2021). These sentiments caused uproar on social media with hashtags such as #NotJustADaughter trending on Twitter. It brought rise to the notion that Ms Higgins did not find herself in a “vulnerable position”, rather it was a man who put her in such a position. The bravery of Ms Higgins has unravelled a reckoning within parliament with regards to sexual misconduct; it has led to the bravery of numerous other women coming forward to share their experiences and has uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct by Attorney General Christian Porter. However, while these allegations come to light, the most important to Ms Higgins and the general public, is that there are measures and framework in place to prevent such misconduct from happening; “I believe that getting to the bottom of what happened to me and how the system failed me is critical to creating a new framework,” the fortitude displayed by Brittany Higgins may just create a safer environment for all employees of government (Mao, 2021).
Effect of public confidence over the Britney Higgins sexual assault
If the rape allegations were not shocking enough for the public, the handling of the case by the government has surely changed the perception of people over political offices being safe work environments for women. According to a recent poll, 66% of people surveyed believe the government is more concerned about protecting itself than the interests of the women who have made sexual assault allegations. This, thus, implies that only one-third of people see political offices as safe workplaces for women (Stayner, 2021). Moreover, incidents such as the alleged historical rape of a 16-year-old woman by an unidentified man – who is now a cabinet minister – in 1988 do not help the government’s case. It is said that the woman went to NSW Police last year, but soon after took her own life, telling the authorities that she did not want to proceed with the investigation. This only leaves people to wonder what the truth is and question the authorities further (Mao, 2021).
Furthermore, it has also been found that several people in the Parliament House were aware of the alleged crime against Ms. Higgins, leaving the public baffled as to why those within the government did not do more (“Brittany Higgins: Parliament Rape Accuser Accuses PM of ‘victim-blaming’”, 2021).
Astonishingly, since Ms. Higgins’ public statement, four other women have accused the same man of sexual assault over the years, which has further enraged the public why strict and appropriate actions were not taken against the accused (Mao, 2021). Specifically, had Ms. Higgins’ been given justice in 2019, it may not have been the case that subsequent assaults would have occurred. Such new discoveries have severely damaged the confidence the public had over the authorities, as questions still remain unanswered.
Keeping it on the down-low
Unfortunately, inequitable outcomes continue to engulf the treatment of women and workplace culture of Parliament House. This allegation amplifies the extent to which the government is under pressure, with several other allegations surfacing against Australian politicians and political staffers ever since Higgins decided to speak out two years after the incident (Stayner, 2021). With many unanswered questions and inconsistencies from the government stacking up, this has fuelled a perception that the incident was seriously mishandled by the Federal Government and parliamentary authorities (Glenday, 2021). To aggravate the situation, Higgins claimed that she was repeatedly denied access to CCTV from Parliament House from the night of the alleged assault, despite the fact another member of the staff had seen it. This, coupled with the fact that Brittney Higgins felt pressured to choose between going to the police or continuing her career in politics, suggests the cracks in the existing system and indicates the need for more transparency.
Labour MP Peta Murphy argues that due to the apparent power imbalance in the workplace, there are no processes to deal with such incidents (McCulloch, 2021). On top of that, Prime Minister Scott Morrison refuses to address this matter, declaring that it is the police’s duty (Khalil, 2021). Legal experts affirm that prosecuting such cases is impossible without an alleged victim’s testimony; thus the government hoped this would let them move on to discuss other subjects like the vaccine rollout or how the economy has fared better than expected this quarter despite the global pandemic. This casts the government as passive onlookers because it immediately transmits a message that the government is not listening and not taking this matter seriously. Moving forward, there is an urge for the government to behave in a way that Australians expect the government to, and also make sure that Australians are confident that there are processes implemented to hold people accountable.
As a whole, this issue has rocked Australian politics to the core. This incident is truly a turning point and reignited wider questions about Australian political culture in areas such as sexism and misogyny. There are calls for cultural change in Australia, criminal justice reform and increased funding for women’s safety services. As this reckoning continues, Australians will continue to fight for equality until discrimination against women and sexual assault are properly addressed. It’s about time political leaders shift away from the behind-closed-doors attitude and seriously take action for this misconduct.
Stayner, T. (2021, March 2). How Australian politics has been shaken to the core in the wake of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation. SBS News. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/how-australian-politics-has-been-shaken-to-the-core-in-the-wake-of-brittany-higgins-rape-allegation
Mao, F. (2021, March 2). How rape allegations have rocked Australian politics. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-56178290
Brittany Higgins: Parliament rape accuser accuses PM of ‘victim-blaming’. (2021, February 17). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-56104681
Glenday, F (2021, February 21st). The big questions left unanswered about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins at Parliament House. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-21/heres-what-we-know-and-dont-about-brittany-higgins-alleged-rape/13173526
ABC News (2021, February). Staffer Brittany Higgins allegedly raped in office of senior government minister Linda Reynolds inside Parliament House. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-15/brittany-higgins-rape-claim-parliament-house-defence-minister/13154736
Calderwood, K (2021, February 15th). Brittany Higgins to pursue complaint of rape in Parliament office with Australian Federal Police. ABC News https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-15/brittany-higgins-parliament-house-rape-allegations/13157168
McCulloch, D (2021, February 16th). Brittany Higgins to pursue rape complaint after alleged sexual assault inside Parliament House. Seven News AU. https://7news.com.au/politics/brittany-higgins-to-pursue-rape-complaint-c-2172686
Khalil, C (2021, March 10th). Will rape allegations change Australia’s ‘toxic’ politics? BBC News https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-56342255
Baker, N (2021, March 19th). As rape allegations rock Australia’s Parliament, thousands of women say enough is enough. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/rape-allegations-rock-australia-s-parliament-thousands-women-say-enough-n1261277
Remeikis, A (2021, March 5th). Australia consumed by rape claim against attorney general. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/mar/05/australia-consumed-rape-claim-attorney-general
The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ, our Partners and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.
Vickram is a third year Bachelor of Commerce student majoring in Accounting and Management. In his spare time, Vickram can be found in the gym, trying his hand in the kitchen or watching football (soccer).
Melanie is a first year Bachelor of Commerce student with an interest in public policy, politics and the ever-evolving global markets. In her spare time you can find her delving into her creative side either card-making or baking.
Yash is a first year Bachelor of Commerce student, intending to major in Economics and Finance. His interests include macroeconomic variables and policies, global inequality, and trade globalisation. Outside of uni, Yash loves exploring different cuisines, playing football (soccer), and is a hardcore Liverpool fan.