It was supposed to be a week totally dominated by the arrival of the vaccine. Instead attention has been partially diverted by the revelation of an alleged 2019 rape in a minister’s Parliament House office — that Scott Morrison was not told about.
An angry Morrison on Tuesday publicly rebuked Defence Minister Linda Reynolds for failing to inform him, as he tried to contain the fallout from her former staffer Brittany Higgins’s explosive account.
Morrison told the House he only learned of the rape allegation early on Monday, shortly before the story was posted by Samantha Maiden on news.com.au.
He didn’t mince words. Asked whether it was acceptable that the Defence Minister hadn’t informed him or his office of a “reported serious crime”, he said: “It is not — and it shouldn’t happen again.”
Higgins says she was assaulted in March 2019 by a colleague, on the Minister’s couch, after she fell into a drunken sleep when the pair returned from a function. She woke up “mid-rape”, with the man on top of her.
The alleged perpetrator was quickly sacked for the security breach, but the alleged rape only came out in Higgins’s discussions with Reynolds’s acting chief of staff Fiona Brown in subsequent days.
Reynolds, who was defence industry minister at the time, urged Higgins to go to the police. Higgins did speak to them but, concerned about her career, decided against lodging a complaint. She remained working for the government — later in Minister Michaelia Cash’s office — until early this year.
She has said in interviews this week she did not feel adequately supported through a horrific ordeal.
‘As the father of daughters’
Morrison’s handling of the issue changed markedly between Monday and Tuesday.
After saying on Monday he was deeply distressed by Higgins’s account, but obviously trying to keep the reaction low key, on Tuesday he was in full damage control, with a flurry of action.
He and Jenny had talked about the matter on Monday night, he said. “And she said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’
“Jenny has a way of clarifying things — always has.” So he’d reflected on that overnight, listening to what Brittany had said.
Casting his response as the father of girls evoked some immediate cynicism. That may or may not be the reaction among the public generally.
Morrison said he’d concluded that despite “the genuine good intentions” of all those who tried to provide support to Higgins, “by what she said last night, at the end of the day, she did not feel that way. And that is not OK.”
Cabinet had discussed the issue late Monday, as the magnitude of the extraordinary affair sank in.
The PM asked Western Australian Liberal backbencher Celia Hammond, a former vice-chancellor of Notre Dame University, “to identify ways that standards and expectations and practices can be further improved” in the parliamentary workplace.
He also asked Stephanie Foster, a deputy secretary of his department, to advise him on better processes “to support people when incidents of this nature arise”.
He was even open to Anthony Albanese’s proposal for an external review, by an “eminent Australian”, of Parliament House’s “workplace culture”. We’ll see whether that goes anywhere.
A flurry of ‘sorries’
There was also a flurry of “sorries” to Higgins, especially over her being called to a meeting in the very office, with its couch, where the alleged rape occurred.
In the Senate, Reynolds gave an unreserved apology. Reynolds said she thought at the time she and Brown were doing everything they could to support Higgins, but she’d clearly felt unsupported. “At all times, my intent and my aim were to empower Brittany and let her determine the course of her own situation,” she said.
Morrison apologised over the site of the meeting.
Controversy swirled around what and when the PM’s staff knew. Brown, who’d worked in the PM’s office before acting as Reynolds’s COS and later moved back, obviously knew everything. But, with the incident seemingly in the past, apparently she didn’t think to mention the rape allegation.
Higgins claimed Morrison’s principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, had checked in on her welfare after last year’s ABC Four Corners program reporting ministerial sexual misbehaviour. There is no record of a phone conversation and Finkelstein cannot recall making any contact.
Morrison told Parliament his office only became aware of the rape allegations on February 12.
Morrison’s office said its involvement in the Higgins matter at the time had related only to the security breach.
Tuesday’s prime ministerial blitz included a lecture to the government parties meeting. “We must do better. We cannot have an environment where anyone feels unsafe in their workplace, or a young woman is left in a vulnerable situation,” Morrison told his troops.
The fallout from the cluster bomb
He’s not the first recent PM to denounce bad behaviour in this most privileged of workplaces. Remember Malcolm Turnbull’s “bonk ban”. And a number of women have highlighted conduct that would not be tolerated elsewhere.
The rape allegation, however, has shaken people because it takes things to another level — if proven, a criminal one.
Higgins, meanwhile, said in a statement that Morrison’s announcement of an investigation “into the culture in Parliament House is a welcomed first step, though it is long overdue”. She asked for her privacy to be respected and said she wouldn’t be making further comment.
The fallout from the cluster bomb she’d tossed — in media terms, a highly organised operation with a kit of information circulated to news organisations — has wounded Reynolds (who’s previously called out bad behaviour) and put the heat on Morrison.
Just maybe, it will prompt another step towards Parliament House becoming a workplace where the standards of behaviour demanded of occupants resemble those observed in the world outside.
But what will happen to the alleged rapist? That depends on whether Higgins lodges a formal complaint with the police, a course which remains open to her.
Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and chief political correspondent at The Conversation, where this article first appeared.
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