Senate debates

Monday, 22 February 2021


Members of Parliament: Staff

10:01 am

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement made by the Minister for Defence, Senator Reynolds, on 18 February 2021.

This has been a distressing time for Ms Higgins, for many staff in this place, for survivors of sexual violence and for those who have supported them. I start by honouring the courage of Ms Brittany Higgins, whose resolve to tell the truth, no matter how risky for her or how confronting, is an example to those in power. I also acknowledge other women who have come forward to tell their story—three women who have told their story of being violated by a man and failed by a hierarchy.

Much has been written, reported and said since Ms Higgins's account was made public, but we should be clear about the key questions which must be answered. The first is why Ms Higgins was failed by those within power and those with power. Those who failed her must be held accountable. The second is how we change the culture of politics in this place and beyond to ensure not only the safety of women but our full participation in political life. Both of these questions must be answered.

Since these distressing allegations have been made public, the Prime Minister and others in his government have sought to focus on questions of culture, and there is no question that there is a problem with the treatment of women in Parliament House and in politics. We saw that when concerns were publicly raised by Liberal women about bullying and intimidation following the leadership spill which saw Mr Morrison depose Mr Turnbull. We saw that in the revelations made by two former Liberal staffers in 2019. And then there was Four Corners last year, where the response from the Morrison government was to launch a full-throttle attack on the ABC.

When the culture of the bullying of Liberal women was raised, Mr Morrison said, 'I'm not going to be distracted by it. I'm not going to get distracted by it'—not going to get distracted by concerns that women were being bullied in his own government. Ultimately, where did his process end up—that process he described as rigorous and confidential? Well, Ms Chelsey Potter, one of the women who raised concerns about bullying, described aspects of the resultant policy as 'protecting alleged perpetrators rather than empowering women in the party to speak up'.

Mr Morrison has talked a lot lately about processes, reviews and changing culture, but he's spoken very little about the accountability of those who put Ms Higgins in a position where she felt her career with the Liberal Party would be compromised if she went to the police. And he avoids this central truth: the first thing you can do to change culture is to act appropriately when serious allegations are made. As part of his political response, Mr Morrison has threatened those seeking to hold his government to account that no party is immune from these issues. Of course, no party, no organisation, is immune from these horrific acts. What matters is how we respond to complaints when they arise, and what matters is how we seek to change the culture by implementing systemic change that supports complainants and seeks to break down power imbalances.

You see, Mr Morrison's sympathetic words ring hollow whilst there is no culture of accountability. We know from Ms Brittany Higgins that this is how it was handled. She said this and we believe her. Ms Higgins said she was given a choice between justice or her job. She was told by her superiors she could go to the police, but they also added: 'We need to know ahead of time. We need to know now.' Ms Higgins was told she could take time away at home on the Gold Coast, but there would be no way back. She said she realised her job was on the line. She said she realised the rape she reported in the minister's office was being seen as 'a political issue'. She wasn't being treated as a human being; she wasn't being treated as a rape survivor or as a victim of a grave crime. She was being treated as a political problem.

And there remain big questions over what was spoken about inside the Morrison government and, indeed, inside Mr Morrison's office—questions about who knew what and when, and whether their response was appropriate. We've been told the alleged rapist was terminated over a security breach. We are told the two most senior staff in the Prime Minister's office—the chief of staff and the principal private secretary—were notified of that termination. The alleged perpetrator was terminated for a security breach—Ms Higgins was not—and the obvious inference is that the sexual assault was known at the time these decisions were made.

The difference in handling by the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office can only be explained by knowledge of the alleged sexual assault. Is this the reason a senior representative of the Australian Federal Police met with Senator Reynolds on 5 April, or was there another reason? The minister has claimed repeatedly she was not made aware of the details of the alleged rape until Monday 1 April 2019. But her office received written advice from the Department of Finance days earlier, on Friday 29 March. Senator Reynolds is expecting people to believe she was unaware, despite this written advice to her office.

And it isn't just Minister Reynolds's account that doesn't add up. The Prime Minister claims he first heard on Monday 15 February 2021, and he's asking Australians to believe his press office didn't tell him for three whole days after questions were put to them on Friday 12 February. We now know from a message sent to Ms Higgins that one of the Prime Minister's staff was 'mortified' when they were told two years earlier and had resolved to tell the Prime Minister's chief of staff. We know that his principal private secretary, the man described as Mr Morrison's fixer, was broadly in the vicinity and checking up on Ms Higgins; and we know that Minister Reynolds's then chief of staff, to whom Ms Higgins then disclosed the allegations of rape, had previously worked for Mr Morrison and has since returned to the Prime Minister's office.

What this comes down to is who knew and whether they handled that appropriately—whether they handled what they knew about the alleged assault appropriately. The Prime Minister's insistence that neither he nor his office knew, despite all the evidence to the contrary, demonstrates he knows this is the test—and he knows he's failed. That is why he has put Mr Gaetjens in charge—Mr Gaetjens, who has a proven record of whitewashing the wrongdoings of the Morrison government. We know Minister Reynolds was aware and made it feel like a political problem to fix, made Ms Higgins feel like she had to choose between justice or her job. We know that, at best, Mr Morrison runs a government where the culture is 'don't ask, don't tell' when it comes to serious criminal allegations. At worst, Mr Morrison himself is part of the cover-up. Of course, there are human consequences to all of this: for Ms Higgins, two years of compounded trauma and denied justice; for all women in this building and beyond, two more years of ignoring concerns about culture; and for the woman who spoke of her trauma in The Weekend Australian on Saturday.

Mr Morrison is arguably the most powerful person in the land. He sets standards that form cultural expectations. His actions, and inactions, shape the culture. But, when Four Corners raised serious concerns about the culture of mistreatment of women in his government, he tried to silence the ABC. When women complained of bullying in his government, he said, 'I'm not going to be distracted by that.' When rape was alleged in an office of one of his own ministers, he set up whitewash investigations that can be controlled. Mr Morrison's media advisers started rumours about Ms Higgins and her partner, and Mr Morrison blamed the victim. He said he was angry about being left in the dark, but there have been no consequences for those he claims left him in the dark. Mr Morrison talks about culture, but what he is not talking about is the culture he leads in his own government, where, no matter what happens, he is never responsible, where nobody is accountable for anything and where a serious crime was covered up.


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