Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologised to former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins for the way the party initially handled her allegations of rape at Parliament House.
Higgins told ‘The Project’ on Monday that a male colleague in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ ministerial office assaulted her after a night out in 2019. She was working as a media advisor at the time.
Days after the alleged incident, Reynolds called a meeting in the same office where Higgins says she was attacked, a move she said was traumatic and “unfathomable”.
Morrison apologised for that on Tuesday saying “that should not have happened” after having a conversation with his wife, Jenny.
“[Jenny] said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’” Morrison told reporters.
“Jenny has a way of clarifying things,” he added.
“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.”
“This is not OK.”
As first reported by news.com.au on Monday, Higgins said a male staffer offered her a lift home in March 2019 but redirected the taxi to Parliament House, where the pair went through several security checkpoints to get to Reynolds’ office, where Higgins fell asleep on a couch.
Higgins told ‘The Project’s’ Lisa Wilkinson that this is where the assault took place.
“The first thing that awoke me was, I was in a pain. My leg was kind of being crushed. The senior staffer was on top of me,” she said.
“I woke up mid-rape, essentially. I don’t know why I knew he was almost finished but I felt like it had been going on for a while.”
“I couldn’t get him off of me. At this point, I started crying.”
She said that after asking her attacker to stop “at least half a dozen times”, he did not speak to her and then left the office. Higgins woke up some time later, feeling scared that she was at work, and left the building.
Higgins said she told chief of staff Fiona Brown about the incident a few days later but that the police were not immediately called because “internal mechanisms were already at play.”
“Inside of Parliament House, it’s its own unique AFP (Australian Federal Police) unit, so they act independently from the ACT police and they’re a brand of the Federal Police, apparently,” she said.
Days later, Reynolds called a meeting in the same office where Higgins said she was assaulted.
“It was just like a white-out in my mind because it was the first time I’d ever had to go back there,” Higgins said.
“I’m sure they were saying words, but I barely remember a single word they said during that process because I was so cognisant of, it happened here, and there was this trauma that I’d just sort of come to terms with and I just thought it was unfathomable that they’d put me in that space again.”
Higgins says the assault happened on March 23, 2019, weeks before the PM called the federal election on April 10.
“The minister clearly didn’t want to hear about it any more,” Higgins said.
“She didn’t broadly want to see me any more. So Fiona was the only person I could talk to and it was dismissed, it was played down and it was made to feel like it was my problem.”
Higgins said she felt like she had to choose between her career and pursuing the matter with the police to seek justice. She was given the option to go home to the Gold Coast until the election and be paid for six weeks when her contract would be up or to move to Western Australia to work for Reynolds’ campaign from the WA office. Higgins moved to WA to continue working for Reynolds but says she became suicidal.
Morrison said he was not told about the allegations until this week and that more needs to be done to ensure people can feel safe in their workplaces.
“I’ve asked Celia Hammond, the member for Curtin - previous vice-chancellor of Notre Dame, who has had experience of dealing with these issues in institutional settings, to lead a process working our chief whips to work with colleagues, ministers, members, and others, to identify how things can be improved so that professional behaviour in this place does not involve a young woman finding herself in the situation that she found herself in that is unacceptable,” he said.
Morrison has also appointed a senior bureaucrat from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Stephanie Foster, to help create an external complaint handling procedure that doesn’t involve party members.
You can watch the full segment on ‘The Project’ below:
In Australia, call 1800 RESPECT (737 732) for the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service.
Sexual Assault Support Services on 6231 1811, or after hours 6231 1817
Family Violence Crisis and Support Service on 1800 608 122
Bravehearts – Sexual Assault Support for Children on 1800 BRAVE 1