Who knew what? In many cases of sexual assault in politics, events take place behind bolted doors, the perpetrator and victim bound by ties of power, seediness and suppression. The victim is left with an odious and onerous task: to report the event. The risks can be considerable. Careers can be ruined. Retaliation from the political tribe can be remorseless.
Parliaments present a paradox. Encrusted with surveillance, crawling with security, safety would surely be guaranteed for all who work within their walls. But the environment of power, ambition and conspiracy lends itself to hierarchies, asymmetries, and inequalities. Politicians find themselves with access to budgets, forums and staffers. There are receptions and meetings to attend, liquor to consume in abundance, deceptions to cultivate. The risk of wandering hands is ever present.
The staffers, in turn, are mindful of their careers, insecure about their futures to the point of neuroses. They are expected to be unconditionally loyal to politician and party. Nikki Savva, herself a former staffer turned scribe, remembers the time: “The hours were long, the demands never-ending, the stress phenomenal and the fear of stuffing up overwhelming.” The staffer is permanently vulnerable and precariously positioned. Reasons for terminating employment are broad and susceptible to abuse. The parliamentarian can, for instance, do so for having “lost trust or confidence in the employee”. When politicians become arbiters of trust, the condition of the absurd has been affirmed.
Maria Maley, an academic from the Australian National University, busies herself with the sordid business of researching political staff. Over the Australian summer, she interviewed eight former political staffers about their time spent in the offices of ministers and electorate offices at both state and federal level. Her findings were not earth shattering. Staffers were bullied, subject to sexual harassment by colleagues and bosses. “It is hard to know how common this is,” Maley suggests, “as the world they inhabit is secretive.” She is being unnecessarily coy.
On March 23, 2019, Brittany Higgins, a Liberal Party staffer, was allegedly raped in the offices of Australia’s Defence Minister, Senator Linda Reynolds. Having initially contacted police, she felt a deep reluctance to press matters further. An election was about to be called. A month ago, Higgins resigned her political job and recommenced the complaints process with the police.
Both the Defence Minister and then chief of staff Fiona Brown were told by Higgins about the incident. Both expressed shock and promised to support the staffer if she decided to take the matter up with the police. In a manner excised of empathy, Reynolds had decided at the time that it was appropriate to hold a meeting with Higgins at the same venue the attack is claimed to have taken place.
The political machine is coming into full play to stifle. Apologies have come from the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister. “At the time, I truly believed that I and my chief of staff were doing everything we could to support that young woman who I had responsibility for,” explained Senator Reynolds to her colleagues in the chamber. Her intention and aim at the time had been “to empower Brittany and let herself determine the course of her own situation, not by me, not by my staff, not by the government as a whole, but by Brittany.” A true philosophe, is the minister.
Morrison did not do much better. On the morning of February 16, he showed striking emotional immaturity in employing an advertising gimmick. He had, he told journalists, spoken to his wife the previous day. “She said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’ Jenny has a way of clarifying things.” Evidently, things were rather cloudy for the prime minister prior to Monday.
The tenor of these apologies is tactical. Assault can be managed. Assault can be contained within a bureaucratic compass. And there was the issue of privacy, a weapon often used against the victim to muzzle matters and preserve the status quo. We kept quiet to help her and observe protocol.
Reviews into the complaints processes of Parliament House and the Liberal Party have been promised by Morrison. Much of this is due to ascertaining, or not, as the case often is, the scope of responsibility and prospects for reform. Reviews should be fiercely independent but the Morrison government is taking few risks, despite having conceded to the opposition that a third, independent inquiry should also be initiated. In one line of inquiry, the Liberal Party will be investigating itself, with West Australian MP and former vice-chancellor of the University of Notre Dame Celia Hammond steering matters.
With a former, overly remunerated university vice-chancellor managing the show, putative efficacy is all but guaranteed to fail. Hammond’s conservative Catholicism is also well known, and her views on sex Victorian in reservation.
Complaints regarding staff safety are currently made through the Department of Finance. There is no standalone body to perform that task. Various female members of parliament not affiliated with the major parties have decided that this be redressed. One is Rebekha Sharkie of the Centre Alliance. “I don’t think sitting within the Department of Finance with a minister still in government of the day is really going to provide that level of confidence.” As for Labor, Anthony Albanese has voiced support for “an arm’s length, independent body that is able to investigate and provide support to anyone in this building who has an issue with their safety.”
The looming question remains: Who knew what and when? Morrison is adamant that blissful ignorance reigned till the story broke, going so far as to publicly rebuke Reynolds for having not told him about the allegations. When asked in parliament by the opposition leader Albanese as to whether it was acceptable that the Defence Minister had kept the matter quiet for two years, Morrison was sharply insistent. “It’s not and it shouldn’t happen again.”
The whole matter is smelly enough to be drawing out the sceptics. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull found it “inconceivable that [the matter] wasn’t well known to at least key members of the prime minister’s staff.” Higgins also has an account that rather holes the narrative, claiming that one of Morrison’s senior advisers had called her some months ago to see how she was coping. At least another member of the prime minister’s staff was also charged with handling her complaint. A pattern, distressing and invidious, is rapidly emerging.