Disturbing allegations that a young political staffer, Brittany Higgins, was raped on a couch in Parliament House have dominated this week’s parliamentary sitting. Here we set out the key facts and timeline.
What is alleged to have occurred?
Higgins joined the office of the then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds on 3 March 2019. She had worked in government previously for another minister. Higgins alleges that about three weeks later, on the evening of 22 March, she was assaulted on the couch in Reynolds’ ministerial office by a more senior male colleague following a social function elsewhere in Canberra.
What happened next?
Reynolds’ office was cleaned on the afternoon of 23 March, apparently at the request of the Department of Finance. Sources say there has been tension between parliamentary security, the Department of Parliamentary Services, and police, about access to incident reports cataloguing the events. Higgins says she asked for access to CCTV footage from that evening but her request was not facilitated.
The colleague who is alleged to have assaulted Higgins had his employment terminated the following week – on 26 March. Reynolds says the reason for that termination was a security breach, and that’s how the incident was assessed in the immediate aftermath. Two of Scott Morrison’s staff, John Kunkel and Daniel Wong, were involved in the sacking of Higgins’ colleague.
On the day her colleague was sacked, Higgins recounted the incident to police at Parliament House. On Monday 1 April, Higgins met with her boss, Reynolds, and the minister’s chief of staff, Fiona Brown, to discuss the alleged incident. That debrief took place in the room where Higgins alleges she was assaulted – the government now acknowledges that was a mistake. With a federal election imminent, Higgins says she was made to feel like pursuing a police complaint could end her career in political staffing. She says she was told she could go home, or work in Western Australia during the campaign. Higgins went to WA. She told police she would not proceed with a complaint on 13 April.
What have people said about it?
Morrison says he only learned of the alleged rape on Monday. He says his office was made aware of the allegations on Friday 12 February. He says Reynolds never told him that one of her staff was allegedly assaulted by another government staffer.
Reynolds has offered Higgins an unreserved apology, but in the Senate, did not comprehensively answer a number of specific questions going to her knowledge of events and her actions in the aftermath, including whether she supplied the member of staff she terminated with a reference or with assistance in finding another job. Reynolds invoked police consideration as the reason for hedging in the chamber. But her office says she did not supply a reference to the former staffer and has had no contact with him since.
Higgins went to work for senator Michaelia Cash after the 2019 election. Cash says she was aware in October 2019 there had been an incident, because of a media inquiry to her office, but says she only learned of the alleged rape on 5 February this year. Higgins left Cash’s office early this year.
Do these accounts from the government stack up?
There are inconsistencies. Morrison says his office did not know about the alleged rape until 12 February – but Brown certainly did. Brown worked in Morrison’s office both before she worked for Reynolds and after the 2019 election. So at least one member of his staff knew about the allegations in some detail. Higgins also says she was contacted by another senior Morrison staffer, Yaron Finkelstein, to “check-in” about the time a Four Corners expose of the Parliament House workplace culture screened in 2020. The government says there’s no record of that contact but departmental officials are conducting a review to verify it.
Morrison has sought to explain the inconsistency by stating it is not conventional for members of staff to raise issues associated with previous employment in their new offices. The government has also said different things about the status of police consideration of the incident. Earlier this week, senior government players were declining to answer questions on the basis police were involved (a line Reynolds has persisted with). On Wednesday, Morrison acknowledged Higgins had not proceeded with the police complaint.
What is being done about the incident?
Morrison started by drafting one of his own MPs and a deputy secretary of his department to develop options to improve “the environment” of Parliament House. He also asked Liberal backbencher Celia Hammond, a former university vice-chancellor, to lead a process of internal consultation about how to improve “professional behaviour” in political offices. On Wednesday night, Morrison wrote to the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, flagging an arm’s-length review to consider the adequacy, effectiveness, independence and awareness of current supports available to parliamentarians and staff.
What has Brittany Higgins said about the response?
Higgins isn’t happy. She says she has learned about key elements associated with the alleged assault from the media rather than through the support of colleagues. She has accused Morrison of deploying “victim-blaming rhetoric”, which is “personally very distressing to me and countless other survivors” of sexual assault.