An official approached police two years ago and said she was raped in the Australian Parliament building. But then she dropped the case, fearing that she would lose her job. Now she has decided to speak publicly and has caused political turmoil that prompted her to file a formal police complaint on Wednesday (24).
Since speaking in public, three other women have come forward, telling local news stations that the same man, a former Liberal Party official, sexually assaulted them.
“Most cases like this do not result in a conviction,” ex-civil servant Brittany Higgins, 26, said in a telephone interview with The New York Times. “I’m telling my truth and I know it’s the right thing to do.”
For women’s rights advocates, the situation reflects the systemic misogyny that exists behind the scenes of power in Australia, particularly the Conservative Liberal Party, which is in government.
Higgins said she was interrogated by the defense minister, then her boss, in the same room where the assault took place: the ministerial cabinet. The accusations prompted an apology from Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “It shouldn’t be an environment where a young woman finds herself in such a vulnerable situation,” he said last week. “It is not correct.”
But he was censored for the response, which critics called a “train wreck.” He seemed to suggest that he only apologized after having had a conversation with his wife, who allegedly asked, “What if this is one of our daughters?”
Some current and past government officials have said they hope the accusations will finally bring about a cultural change in parliament. Women’s rights advocates have said such attitudes towards women are instilled not only in the Australian government, but in the country in general, which tends to lag behind others in the West on gender issues.
“We really refuse to believe women,” said Sharna Bremner, attack survivor and founder of the End of Rape organization on the Australian campus, adding that the country’s strict libel laws tend to stifle the movement # MeToo.
The other women’s charges, ranging from 2016 to 2020, were reported by the Australian newspaper and ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.). At least one of the whistleblowers said she did this to support Higgins. The women, who could not be reached for comment, have not been publicly identified. They have also not publicly identified the man.
“I’m sorry they had to go through this, because I know how devastating it is,” Higgins said of the women who performed. She and her partner quit their jobs as a result of the ordeal, she added. “It has been incredibly difficult,” he said. “It is deeply painful for my family, my loved ones, to go through this. I personally salute you for your courage.”
One of the three women, whose charges were first published on Sunday (21) in The Weekend Australian, said she decided to tell her story to help shed light on the ‘horrific’ culture that exists within the Australian government.
The woman told the newspaper that she met the man last year for dinner. She said he bought her several drinks, then they went to her house, where he had sex with her without using a condom, although she told him that they could not have sex. if he didn’t use them. She told The Australian that while the Higgins case had been handled properly by the government in 2019, “it didn’t happen to me.”
Another woman, whose charges were released by The Australian on Monday, said the same man sexually assaulted her just before the 2016 election. She said she had just graduated from high school. The man paid her for several doses of vodka and tequila and offered to “take care of her” in her hotel room, she said. The woman said she fell asleep and then woke up half-naked with the man lying on top of her.
She told the newspaper that hearing Higgins’ story made her think her attacker was “a role model.”
Another woman, whose report was released on Monday, said the same man “reached out under the table and touched his leg” in 2017, as they drank with colleagues at a bar in Canberra, said reported ABC.
After the four spoke publicly, Morrison announced several inquiries in areas such as workplace culture, how accusations of sexual abuse are handled by the government, and what his office knew about the alleged attacks on Higgins at the time. Morrison said he didn’t learn of the alleged attack until February 12. Some have questioned this, however.
Some of the inquiries will be carried out by government ministers and others by independent bodies, Morrison said. He asked Phil Gaetjens, cabinet secretary, to investigate the alleged attack on Higgins.
But critics say the government’s response is insufficient. Government surveys, they say, tend to fall short of the radical cultural shift that would be needed to change attitudes towards women in parliament and elsewhere.
“A review is political dressing,” said Rachael Burgin, professor of criminology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. “I haven’t seen anything from a member of the government suggesting that he is taking this seriously enough to bring about substantial change,” Burgin added.
“Brittany Higgins gives us the opportunity to really fix something,” said Clare O’Neil, member of the opposition Labor Party. “It’s a national parliament. We have to set high standards.”