Scott Morrison has been wounded by the public revelation this week of an alleged rape in Parliament House. But the fear must be that along the way Brittany Higgins, the young woman whose story shocked the country, has become a victim twice over – not just of the incident itself but also of the fallout these past days.
Politicians praise her courage in coming forward, but some use her trauma in their own cause.
For the media, her experience has fed into the recurring narrative of bad behaviour in Parliament House, and the wider one of violence against women. It’s been salacious.
But where will Higgins be left when the political and news caravans move on? In a personally bad place, one suspects. This is the cost of speaking out sometimes.
The political focus of the issue moved from whether or to what degree Linda Reynolds, then defence industry minister, fell down in her duty of care to her staffer, to when Morrison and his office knew about Higgins’ alleged assault by a colleague in Reynolds’ office in March 2019.
Morrison says he first knew of the rape allegation on Monday this week, and his staff only learned of it on Friday last week.
The prime minister threw Reynolds under the proverbial bus for not telling him, with a rebuke delivered in the House of Representatives.
At one level, of course the PM should know about a crime allegedly committed under his workplace roof. The question of whether Reynolds should have told him is, however, debatable.
If she had made the information more widely available, Reynolds would not just have breached Higgins’ privacy but possibly, given the nature of politics, jeopardised her prospects.
As it was, post-election Higgins had job offers from several ministers and went to Michaelia Cash’s office, where she apparently got on well.
Morrison was being expedient in his public swipe at Reynolds for staying mum. But if Reynolds feels any private resentment she might recall she had the benefit of Morrison’s expediency before the election, when he took the unusual step of promising she’d be defence minister if he won. He wanted to bolster his credentials on women.
Reynolds this week gave a general apology to Higgins but, apart from meeting her in the room the incident took place (the minister’s own office), it is not clear where her treatment of her staffer was at fault.
Higgins said on Wednesday Reynolds’ then chief of staff, Fiona Brown, who primarily handled things, “continually made me feel as if my ongoing employment would be jeopardised if I proceeded any further with the matter”.
Yet Reynolds wanted Higgins to seek police action (while recognising her right not to). She did speak to the police, as did Reynolds. It is understandable Higgins felt she was choosing between laying a complaint and protecting her career. But if Reynolds advised her to pursue a complaint, presumably she would have stood by her if she had done so.
On Thursday Reynolds said in the Senate: “I made it clear to Brittany that she would have my full support in whatever course of action she decided to take”.
Not that long after the incident, Higgins told Brown how appreciative she’d been of her support and advice.
On the other hand, text evidence shows Higgins, reacting to unrelated reported bad behaviour, referring to how she’d received little help in the wake of the assault. Not surprisingly, her mood varied.
Brown is very relevant to the row over what Morrison knew and when.
Previously working for now-ambassador to Washington Arthur Sinodinos, Brown is described by one staff source (not in the PM’s office) as a sensitive, maternal figure who’d follow proper process.
She’s currently in Morrison’s office. She knew everything about these events. If Morrison says Reynolds should have passed on the information, doesn’t he think Brown should have done so?
His “Chinese walls” justification for apparent double standards sounds ludicrous.
He told Parliament there was a convention a staffer didn’t talk about what happened in a previous office they’d worked in.
“That knowledge related to her time in that [COS] role. Not in her role in my office. […] Seeking to conflate those things […] and to suggest that involves a knowledge of my office […] would be misplaced,” he said.
If such a convention existed (before this week), surely it would apply only to work matters – policy discussions and the like.
More probably, if Brown said nothing it was because she thought the issue closed or, like Reynolds, she was being discreet.
Whatever Brown did or didn’t do, Morrison’s claim that his office was unaware of the allegation until late last week is self-evidently false and illogical, because Brown was fully across it. The thing nobody in the office knew was that it was about to become a big story.
There’s another strange aspect about Morrison’s timeline. He says his office learned of the allegation on Friday February 12. That was when journalist Samantha Maiden made inquiries. She published her report on news.com.au early Monday.
We know Maiden was dealing with the Prime Minister’s office through last weekend. Morrison has a bevy of senior media advisers. It’s odd they didn’t alert him that Maiden, a tiger when she’s on the scent, might be about to cause him grief.
Morrison certainly knew he was walking on eggshells after the story broke, but plunged increasingly into trouble, not least when he smashed the whole egg carton by invoking Jenny’s advice to think as a father.
At a political level, the Higgins issue has been a test of four high-profile Senate women: two ministers, Reynolds and Cash, and Labor’s Senate leader and deputy, Penny Wong and Kristina Keneally.
Wong and Keneally are among the opposition’s fiercest attack dogs, and homed in on Reynolds, who after the rebuke at first stonewalled, then made a statement on Thursday. The strain was showing – she broke down when dealing with a separate matter.
Higgins was still employed in Cash’s office when she decided to quit recently.
In an emotional account, Cash told the Senate she tried to persuade Higgins to stay, and offered to accompany her to the police if she wanted to make a complaint. Cash, who says she only learned of the rape allegation on February 5, also offered to go with her to Morrison’s office. But Higgins declined, saying she wanted to preserve her privacy.
Their discussion was after Morrison stood beside Australian of the Year Grace Tame, an advocate for survivors of sexual violence – an image Higgins has pointed to as one trigger for her decision to go public.
It is not clear what mix of motives caused Higgins to speak out. It is clear she is now very vulnerable.
Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and chief political correspondent at The Conversation, where this article first appeared.
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