Sydney, Australia, Feb 16 – A former Australian government staffer has said she was raped in a minister’s office in parliament and failed by her bosses after coming forward, prompting an apology from the prime minister Tuesday.
Brittany Higgins alleged she was sexually assaulted by a male colleague in now-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office in 2019, after a night out drinking with conservative Liberal Party colleagues.
Higgins told news.com.au that, after reporting the incident to a superior, she was asked to attend a formal employment meeting in the same room the alleged rape occurred.
Then aged 24 and a few months into her “dream job”, she described feeling forced to choose between her career and making a formal report to police.
The revelation follows a string of scandals over the mistreatment of women in Australian politics in recent years, including bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.
Higgins told Channel 10 that she felt like a “political problem” that needed to be solved, with her bosses appearing “uncomfortable” if she brought up the issue again.
The government initially defended its approach, saying Higgins had been encouraged to speak to the police and would be supported in her decisions, though an official conceded the choice of meeting location had been a mistake.
But amid growing public outrage on Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison shifted gears and apologised.
“That should not have happened. And I do apologise,” he told reporters in Canberra.
Morrison said that — after taking advice from his wife overnight — he realised further action was needed.
“Jenny and I spoke last night, 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?’” the father of two said. “Jenny has a way of clarifying things, always has.”
“It shatters me that still, in this day and age, that a young woman can find herself in the vulnerable situation that she was in. Not her doing,” he added. “We have to do more, whether it’s in this workplace, or in any other workplace in the country.”
To that end Morrison announced an investigation into processes dealing with sexual assault complaints and a review of workplace culture in the parliament.
Higgins thanked Morrison for his apology but said she should not have needed to go public for him to take action.
“The Prime Minister’s announcement of an investigation into the culture in Parliament House is a welcomed first step, though it is long overdue,” she told news.com.au.
– Backlash –
Morrison’s comments also drew criticism for his need to consult his wife before realising the seriousness of the allegations.
Pundits described Morrison’s comments as “misguided” and the hashtags #NotJustADaughter and #ScottyTheMisogynist were trending on Twitter in Australia.
“Women are not the wards of men. They should not have to rely upon the paternalistic care and protection of men in power to be safe,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald columnist Jacqueline Maley.
“It should not take a rape in the centre of power for the institutional problem to be treated with any real seriousness.”
Australia’s parliament has been criticised for a “toxic” workplace culture that has allegedly spawned bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct against women.
The ruling conservative coalition has also been accused of having a “woman problem”, with a spate of high-profile female politicians quitting parliament ahead of the 2019 election and several citing bullying as a factor.
In response, Morrison has boosted the number of women in Cabinet and says other steps have been taken to improve the parliamentary workplace.
But critics point to a perceived lack of action when allegations of intimidation and misogyny were levelled against two government ministers late last year, saying sexism persists.
Higgins said she reported the alleged rape to Australian Federal Police within days but later chose not to make a formal complaint. She has now reportedly decided to pursue the case again.
The unnamed man accused of rape reportedly left his role in the immediate aftermath of the incident.