Senate debates

Monday, 22 February 2021


Members of Parliament: Staff

10:22 am

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | Hansard source

The opposition has repeatedly asked over the past week: when and what did the minister know about the alleged rape, and what did she do? The minister clearly knew by 27 March that something serious had occurred in her office between her staff, but then waited until Monday 1 April, some six days after the first disclosure by Ms Higgins, to speak directly to the young woman involved. The minister says she didn't know the full details of what was alleged to have happened, but she doesn't explain why that was the case. The statement says:

During this meeting I made it clear to Brittany that she would have my full support in whatever course of action she decided to take and that she would have full access to counselling services.

What did the minister do? Did the minister arrange for counselling and support? Did she check in with Ms Higgins to see if she needed any help to access services? The statement goes on to say:

My chief of staff and I moved quickly to ensure that Brittany was given access to the police, should she wish to make a complaint.

Ms Higgins had already independently spoken with police days before this, and, according to Ms Higgins, the access to police in the 1 April meeting was couched in terms of: 'If you go to the police, you must let us know when you do.' There was no offer of going with her, of supporting her, of sitting with her. Why is it, throughout this traumatic time for Ms Higgins, the minister only ever spoke to Ms Higgins about it once, on 1 April, and then never again? The minister tells this place that she has:

… full confidence that my then chief of staff and I at all times acted in what we believed were in the best interests of Brittany.

If this were true, why didn't the minister ever check in to see if Ms Higgins was okay? Why didn't the minister ever check to see if she had accessed counselling support? Why, after saying she'd prefer to be near her family for the election campaign, was Ms Higgins dispatched across the country to Western Australia for the entire duration of the campaign, isolated and alone, with nobody to talk to? How was any of this in Ms Higgins's best interest? It might've been in the Liberal Party's interest, but you can't argue it was in Ms Higgin's interest.

Ms Higgins was the minister's employee. There was a duty of care. How did the minister act in her best interests if the alleged rape was never discussed again after the 1 April meeting? A dedicated employee of this government is allegedly raped in the minister's office, and the minister never follows up. This terrible incident happened in Senator Reynolds's office. She could have done more, she should have done more, and I think she actually knows that. In her statement, the minister said:

Throughout this entire time my sole desire has been to let Brittany herself determine how this matter would be dealt with.

But, minister, you were the boss. It happened in your office. Why should it have been left to a young, traumatised and stricken woman to navigate her way through this? Why is everything her responsibility? The minister's statement says:

At all times Brittany's welfare and her right to privacy were paramount to me.

Why, then, if her privacy was so important, did you speak with Minister Cash's chief of staff in October 2019 and tell them everything about what you knew? Was that protecting Ms Higgins's privacy? She didn't know it was being done. Was that in her best interests then?

The minister says that she understands it's the duty of the Senate to ask hard questions about how this incident was dealt with. Yes, we will ask those questions, because it goes right to the heart of the minister's capability, suitability and conduct. The minister is a senior member of this government, and, in the treatment of Ms Higgins, the minister has been found seriously wanting. The minister says she is sorry Ms Higgins felt unsupported and that some of the minister's actions added to Ms Higgins's distress. This statement alone is some acknowledgement that, as an employer, the minister and the Liberal Party failed this young woman. The minister failed to take appropriate action. The minister placed her back at the scene of the alleged crime. The minister failed to stand up and support this young woman. The minister failed to offer or arrange the help that she clearly needed after allegations of sexual assault were raised. The minister sent her across the country, where she was isolated. The minister failed to check in with her. And, after the election was over, the minister washed her hands of all of it.

This is an egregious failure by Senator Reynolds as an employer and as a minister. The minister's statement has left many questions about her conduct unanswered. But then she lectures us that, due to the various inquiries underway:

It is now incumbent on all of us in this place to let the independent processes now in train consider these matters.

The independent process has nothing to do with what Senator Reynolds did or didn't do during her conduct as a minister, nor does the police investigation have anything to do with the minister's conduct following the alleged rape, and the minister should stop trying to hide behind it. The minister has failed to answer the questions asked of her. But we will not stop asking them. The minister has failed to take responsibility for what happened in the aftermath of an awful, traumatising event. The minister's statement finishes with:

My hope now is that we can address this very serious issue as a parliament, away from the politics.

All I can say to that is: I bet you do.

I note the government is trying to broaden and spread the blame and make it about everyone's office and every person in this building. But there are two separate issues here. What happened to this young woman in a senior minister's office two years ago—and what happened after that event? And then there's the broader issue of the cultural change that is required in this building. We cannot allow this government to conflate the two. That's what they're trying to do. The PM and his marketing team are trying to make what happened to this young woman everybody's responsibility—and it's not. If I had known about what happened to this young woman, if many people in this place had known about what happened to this young woman two years ago, there would have been a very different response than the one she got from this government. Ms Higgins should have been treated very differently two years ago when she came to the minister, a young woman clearly in need of help and support, and she deserves better from this minister now.


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