Brittany Higgins’ Rape Allegations Forced Australian Politics to Confront a Long-Ignored Problem

Image courtesy of SBS News

This article was originally published in the Women’s Republic.

TW: This article contains details of rape, sexual assault, and suicide

In February, former Liberal Party political staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped by a male colleague inside a government minister’s office in March 2019. Soon after, several more allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against political staffers and politicians inside the Parliament House in Australia. Further rape allegations were made when an anonymous letter was sent to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other Senate members detailing an alleged rape of a teenager in 1988. After these allegations of sexual misconduct were made public, Australian politics were shaken up by more controversies that included male colleagues taking lewd pictures and masturbating in a female politician’s office. This started a conversation on the toxic workplace culture that was largely ignored in Australian politics.

A timeline of Brittany Higgins’ incident

On the night of March 22, 2019, a male staffer of Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds and Higgins are let into the ministerial wing of the Parliament House by a security guard. Higgins was heavily intoxicated when the male colleague raped her and the next morning, she was found half-naked and disoriented inside the office. After the incident, the male colleague was sacked not because of the alleged assault, but because he had breached office security. Later, Higgins was called for a meeting with Reynolds, at the same office where the assault took place, to assure her that she would have Reynolds’ full support.

After a few days, Higgins met with the police unit at Parliament House, and they concluded that there was no criminality involved in interfering with a crime scene and no evidence that the sexual assault occurred that day. When Higgins took the incident to the police, they mentioned that they were having trouble acquiring security footage from that night. After a month, Higgins decided not to move ahead with the complaint. Higgins went on to work for Minister Michaelia Cash. However, in January 2021 Higgins resigned, citing the trauma over the rape incident.

Scott Morrison’s disingenuous response and criticism for invoking his daughters

Throughout this whole incident, Morrison claimed that he was unaware of the rape allegations. It was not until three days before Higgins went public with the rape allegations, that Morrison was informed about them. Morrison’s claim of learning about the incident with the rest of the world was questioned, as it was reported that there were text messages between a Liberal staffer and a member of Morrison’s team regarding the incident. After Higgins went public, Morrison apologized to her and expressed his regret for the way the situation was handled within Parliament House. The rape allegations were “deeply distressing” to him and it was a wake-up call to change the workplace culture.

Following the decision to review the workplace culture, Morrison spoke to his wife about the incident and considered what it meant to him, as a father, and to think about his daughters. This kind of mindset is quite common when it comes to invoking men’s daughters into an irrelevant situation. This type of sympathy with survivors of rape only comes at the cost of whether their own daughters might end up in a situation like this. It should not take being a father to daughters or uncles to nieces to understand that violence against women is a real problem in society. Morrison expected to have compassion and sympathy for what Higgins had experienced.

More women speak out

After Higgins spoke out, four more women came forward with rape allegations and sexual advances from the same man. One woman shared that he had raped her after drinks and dinner in 2020. Another woman, who worked as an election volunteer, was raped by him after a night out in 2016. A third woman made a report to the police after seeing Higgins speak out. He had stroked her thigh during group dinner in 2017. The fourth woman was a former housemate of the man and she reports that he made unwanted sexual advances when they were living together.

Cabinet Minister accused of rape

On February 26, the Australian Federal Police were notified of an anonymous letter that was delivered to Morrison, Labor Senator Penny Wong, and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. The details of the letter included details of the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl that occurred in 1988. When Morrison was asked whether the MP was confronted with the incident, the accused MP denied it.

Later, the accused was Attorney-General Christian Porter, who denied the rape allegations and further explained that he had never slept with the woman. He implored that he cannot imagine revealing this tragedy would leave her family further traumatized during his statement. When asked if he might have misconstrued or forgotten any of the details of the alleged rape, he replied that would not have happened because the incident never occurred. Since this happened, Porter has not been sacked from his job.

The story behind Christian Porter’s accuser

Christian Porter’s accuser had reported the rape to the police in February but the investigation was suspended when she took her own life in June last year. According to her sexual assault counselor, she had spoken about the assault eight years ago and decided to file a report. Together with her counselor, she went through the pros and cons of seeking justice and whether it was okay for her to go through the traumatic experience.

After the incident, the woman struggled with her mental health and her career. Known as a fierce debater by her friends, she never lived up to her full potential. She attempted suicide three times and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Due to the pandemic, she was never able to make a formal statement after reporting the allegations to NSW Police. She checked herself into psychiatric care after she became severely depressed. A week after she left the clinic, she informed the police she did not want to proceed with the investigation. The next day, she took her own life.

The aftermath of the historical rape

Image courtesy of Sydney Morning Herald/ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

After Higgins and many other women came forward with their stories of sexual abuse, many politicians inside the Parliament House accused them of lying. Higgins’ former boss, Linda Reynolds, was somebody who supported her when the incident was first reported to her. According to The Guardian, Reynolds had called Higgins a “lying cow” in front of staffers in February. In a statement, Reynolds states that she is deeply sorry for the remarks that she made. Reynolds has not been sacked from her job.

The rape allegations against politicians started a conversation of sexism, misogyny and workplace culture, and harassment. Speculations of who was responsible for the report and how it was handled initially were questions, and some assertions were contested. Higgins’ story was questioned many times, especially by a veteran radio host in Adelaide, who called her a “silly girl who got drunk,” and he has been sacked from his job due to his remarks.

Whether there is going to be a change in the workplace culture is questionable because the government does not seem to be condemning the Porters’ actions. Morrison has defended both Reynolds and Porter and stated that he would not stand down Porter since he had denied the rape allegations.

Weeks after Higgins’ rape allegations went public, a federal Liberal staffer was sacked over a video of himself performing a lewd act in front of a female MP’s desk. He also took a video of him performing a sexual act with someone else in his boss’ office. It was also reported that government staffers shared pictures and videos amongst themselves performing sexual acts in Parliament House.

The ‘March 4 Justice’ rally

In March, a rally was organized that demanded to change the workplace culture and violence against women. Ultimately, this rally was held around the same time as the murder of Sarah Everard which caused a public outcry about women’s safety. The Morrison government has been accused of mishandling Higgins’ rape allegations and was widely criticized for the scandals.

“We are all here today not because we want to be here, [but] because we have to be here. We fundamentally recognize the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place, and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institution.”

– Brittany Higgins at the ‘March 4 Justice’ rally in Canberra

At the rally, Higgins widely criticized and slammed the government for its lack of accountability and its inability to make the necessary changes within Parliament House to protect women. She further mentions that Morrison did not make an effort to apologize to her personally, but rather made an apology through the media, as his media team worked to discredit her and further traumatize her. Thousands of women shared their experiences of workplace harassment and hope that changes will be enacted.

The hidden epidemic of abuse and violence against women

Violence against women affects a woman’s wellbeing and mental health and prevents women from fully participating in society. In Australia, violence against women is disturbingly common. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics figure, one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence, and nearly one in every five women have endured domestic violence. The numbers are much higher when it’s related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Aya Maasawe, Eurydice Dixon, and Jill Meagher were murdered in Australia, in different situations but the common theme is that they were women. These deaths led to public marches demanding that women be provided safety and tighter restrictions for sexual offenders.

A culture of silence

From Morrison’s perspective, women are only daughters. But, that’s not true. Women are not just daughters, they are people. They are somebody. Powerful people and institutions protect abusers and perpetrators rather than holding them accountable. This culture of shaming victims instead of believing their stories is part of the cultural norm. By doing this, people will invalidate survivors of abuse and accept rape as a norm.

In the case of Higgins, her story prompted a change in how accounts of sexual assault must be handled, and how the nature of workplace culture needed to change immediately. By ignoring and allowing perpetrators to roam around without any consequences is not a step in the right direction. The conversation between Higgins and Morrison changed his mind about the remarks he made to protect Porter. Morrison noted her bravery and courage when she came forward with the allegations and listened to her views on how to make workplaces safe for women. Hopefully, Morrison has learned something from this discussion and implements changes soon.

Writer | Contributor at Women’s Republic | https://linktr.ee/nuhahassan