This article contains references to rape and sexual assault.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has responded to pressure to commission an independent review into the handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints inside Parliament House, pledging to develop one held “at arm’s length of government”.
Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins has alleged she was raped by a male colleague inside a ministerial office in 2019. She said she felt “dismissed” following the alleged incident and didn’t take a complaint further with police because she was worried it would impact her career.
Mr Morrison on Wednesday evening sent a letter to Labor leader Anthony Albanese, responding to his earlier calls for the independent workplace review.
In the letter, he said he hoped all sides of politics would help develop the review.
“It is my expectation that this review would be conducted at arm’s length of government, consult widely across parliamentarians and their staff, the departments and agencies that support our work, and provide constructive feedback on measures that can be implemented,” he wrote.
“In particular, I have asked that this process consider the adequacy, effectiveness, independence and awareness of current supports that are available to Parliamentarians and their staff.
“It is important staff who work with us are listened to in this process.”
Mr Morrison said he has written to Finance Minister Simon Birmingham to request he coordinate the cross-parliamentary cooperation.
The move follows Mr Morrison’s announcement on Tuesday he had asked Liberal MP Celia Hammond to work with party whips and MPs to improve workplace standards and protect staff.
Labor, the Greens and crossbench MPs had expressed concern that response would be insufficient, saying an independent review outside of government influence was crucial.
Mr Morrison has also tasked his department’s deputy secretary Stephanie Foster to lead a review of how the complaints process is conducted.
Ms Higgins herself has also called for an “independent reporting mechanism” for staff where they can “confidently and safely” make complaints.
Crossbench MPs had also written to Mr Morrison to call for the establishment of an independent complaints body.
Helen Haines, Zali Steggall and Rebekha Sharkie said it needed to exist outside the Department of Finance, which currently handles such matters.
Ms Haines told SBS News an independent review would ensure people can pursue these matters in confidence.
“We need a culture in the Australian Parliament that everyone could look up to,” she said.
Ms Steggall also said an external review would be a more appropriate response “to ensure that there actually is safeguards put in place and proper processes and that this goes beyond any political party”.
Concerns over government’s response
Ms Higgins was 24 and working for then-Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds when the alleged rape occurred more than two years ago.
Labor’s government accountability spokesperson Kristina Keneally on Wednesday said the government’s response to the alleged incident had been “highly concerning”.
“We have Brittany Higgins’ own evidence that she felt like a problem to be managed rather than a crime where she was the victim and it should be reported,” she said.
“It shouldn’t have been up to the victim and the survivor to ensure that other women are safe – there should have been a process in place.”
Mr Morrison has apologised to Ms Higgins for the way the government handled its response.
She welcomed his apology on Tuesday, but on Wednesday released a new statement in which she said Mr Morrison’s “victim-blaming rhetoric” had been “very distressing”.
Ms Higgins’ allegations have also drawn renewed attention to what has long been criticised as a toxic culture for women inside Parliament House.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, you can call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.