Call for independent body to hear staffer complaints after rape allegation

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds (pictured) apologised to Brittany Higgins on Tuesday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds (pictured) apologised to Brittany Higgins on Tuesday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The former Liberal staffer who alleges she was raped in a ministerial office in Parliament House has called for an independent body for staffers to be able to make complaints, separate from political party processes.

Brittany Higgins alleges she was raped in the office of then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds in March 2019, by a fellow staffer, who took her there after a drunken night out.

The allegations by Ms Higgins, and the paltry support offered to her in the aftermath, forced apologies from both the Prime Minister and Senator Reynolds and fuelled calls for an overhaul of culture and processes in political offices.

In a statement Ms Higgins thanked Scott Morrison for his apology and welcomed the announcement of an investigation into the culture in Parliament House, but labelled it "overdue".

"It should not have taken my story, or the story of other victim-survivors to air on national television for the Prime Minister - or any Member of Parliament - to take action on workplace sexual harassment, assault or bullying,'' Ms Higgins said.

"A clear path forward is now required - and that includes a comprehensive review to the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act to ensure adequate protections for staff.

After apologising on Tuesday morning, the Prime Minister drew ire for referencing a discussion with his wife Jenny and his daughters as a clarifying point for him.

"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?' Jenny has a way of clarifying things, always has," he said.

Ms Higgins called for all political parties to conduct their own reviews and establish accountability processes.

"There needs to be an independent reporting mechanism for staff where they can confidently and safely make complaints - similar to processes in many other workplaces in Australia and abroad."

Maria Maley, an expert from the Australian National University's School of Politics and International Relations, specialises in the study of political staffers, and says staffers' employment is "precarious" because they are employed personally by the MP or minister.

"Within that relationship they are powerless, because if they raise complaints they could be sacked or they might fall out with powerful people and find they are no longer offered work," Dr Maley said.

The wellbeing of staff comes second to the needs and demands of the MP, and of the fortunes of the political party, Dr Maley said, creating a culture where poor conduct is tolerated.

Mr Morrison announced two processes to respond to the allegations, one to be led by government backbencher Celia Hammond, who will work with the party whips "to identify ways that standards and expectations and practices can be further improved so that professional behaviour in this place does not involve a young woman finding herself in the situation that she found herself in".

Deputy Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet Stephanie Foster will also investigate the processes in dealing with such incidents and supporting staff, including where the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet should step in.

Dr Maley said it was important the investigation by Ms Hammond ensured MPs knew what standards and culture should exist in their offices, because the Department of Finance could not enforce such standards, despite acting in a human resources sense for staffers.

"At the end of the day, they've got no power, only that MP can decide what should happen next."

Even if the Department of Finance made findings against a staffer or MP, the decision about their employment remains with the MP, making an independent body like that called for by Ms Higgins necessary, Dr Maley said.

"It's obviously very important to have some independent person to go to, where you don't feel you're risking your job by raising something. And that person has to have some power."

In Question Time on Tuesday, Mr Morrison distanced himself from Senator Reynolds, saying it was not acceptable that he hadn't been informed of the allegations and "it shouldn't happen again".

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds unreservedly apologised to Ms Higgins in Senate Question Time on Tuesday.

"Last night we all heard from Brittany herself in her own words. Her trauma, her distress, was all very very clear for all to see," Senator Reynolds said.

"The fact that she felt unsupported in her time working here was also very, very clear for us all to see, and for that, I apologise. At the time, I truly believed that I and my chief of staff were doing everything we could to support that young woman, who I had responsibility for.

"At all times my intent and my aim was to empower Brittany and to let her determine the course of her own situation."

Senator Reynolds said she deeply regretted holding a meeting with Ms Higgins to discuss the rape in her office, the room in which it was alleged to occurred. She said she did not know it was that room at the time.

Senator Reynolds confirmed the staffer accused of the rape was terminated from her office in the days after the incident, but that it was related to a security breach.

Ms Higgins decided not to pursue a police complaint at the time of her alleged rape because she was worried about losing her job.

She has since resigned and plans to reinstate the police complaint.

She also intends to initiate a formal complaint with the Department of Finance, which handles work-related complaints from ministerial staff.

Ms Higgins is the third Liberal staffer to allege she was sexually assaulted by men in the party.

The Liberal Party recently released a national code of conduct for handling complaints and Labor is in the final stages of adopting an updated version of its existing harassment processes and policies.

- With AAP

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This story 'They are powerless': call for independent body to hear staffer complaints after rape allegation first appeared on The Canberra Times.