Former government staffer Brittany Higgins on Friday announced she will lay a formal complaint to trigger a police investigation into her alleged 2019 rape by a colleague in Parliament House.
In a statement, Higgins also said she had told Scott Morrison’s office she expected a voice in the framing of the inquiry into the conditions for ministers and staff.
Her statement came amid fresh allegations, based on April 2019 text exchanges, that Morrison’s office was made aware of the rape allegation soon after the incident.
Morrison says his office only learned of it last week, and he first knew this week.
The head of his department Phil Gaetjens is investigating whether there was knowledge in the PMO.
Asked about the April 2019 texts, Morrison said he had received the advice from his office that it did not know until Friday of last week “and I’ve asked my department to actually look into that advice so I can be assured. I would like to know if there was anything different here, I would like to know.
"I want to know. And that’s why I’ve asked the secretary of my department to actually test that advice that I’ve received.”
The Gaetjens inquiry was already underway when the April 2019 text exchange was published.
In her statement Higgins said: “Today I have reengaged with Australian Federal Police and will proceed with a formal complaint regarding the crime committed against me in what should be the safest building in Australia.”
The alleged assault took place in the ministerial office of then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds, when the staffers returned after a night out.
Higgins spoke with the police at the time, but did not lay a complaint. She has said she felt pressured to choose between pursuing the matter and safeguarding her career.
On Friday Higgins said she sought to achieve two things by coming forward this week.
She wanted a comprehensive police investigation into what happened to her “and for my perpetrator to face the full force of the law”. The police had told her they would handle the matter thoroughly and transparently, and she also wanted it done in a “timely manner”. “I have waited a long time for justice,” she said.
“Secondly, given my experience, I am determined to drive significant reform in the way the Australian Parliament handles issues of this nature and treats ministerial and parliamentary staff more generally.
"I expect a truly independent investigation into how my matter was handled inside the government including offices where I worked, and other offices and parties that had knowledge of my circumstances.
"I believe that getting to the bottom of what happened to me and how the system failed me is critical to creating a new framework for political staff that ensures genuine cultural change and restores the trust of staff.
"In addition to an independent investigation into what happened to me, I demand a significant review into the conditions under which ministerial and parliamentary staff are employed and how we can do better.”
Morrison announced several reviews this week, including one that would be independent and examine “the workplaces of parliamentarians and their staff”.
He said there would be cross-party consultations on developing it. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham is co-ordinating this in his position as Special Minister of State.
Pressing for a role, Higgins said: “The Prime Minister has repeatedly told the Parliament that I should be given ‘agency’ going forward.
"I don’t believe that agency was provided to me over the past two years but I seize it now and have advised the Prime Minister’s Office that I expect a voice in framing the scope and terms of reference for a new and significant review into the conditions for all ministerial and parliamentary staff,” she said.
“I was failed repeatedly, but I now have my voice, and I am determined to use to ensure that this is never allowed to happen to another member of staff again.”
Asked to respond to Higgins’ request for a role, a prime ministerial spokesman said it was a matter for Birmingham to determine as part of the terms of reference.
Higgins said political advisers had few protections, resources and confidential reporting mechanisms to deal with workplace issues.
“Too often, a toxic workplace culture can emerge that enables inappropriate conduct and this is exacerbated by the disparity in the power dynamics.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra