By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — While International Women’s Day was celebrated around the world on March 8, a debate was gathering momentum in Australia about the “toxic workplace culture” within the corridors of power in the Australian parliament in Canberra, with politicians running for cover as rape allegations against them and their staff surfaced fast and swift.
On February 15 this year, governing Liberal Party junior staffer Brittany Higgins alleged to two media outlets in Australia, that she was raped late at night in the Defence Industry Minister Senator Linda Reynolds’ office in the ministerial wing of Parliament House by a male colleague in 2019.
Higgins has also acknowledged that she was heavily intoxicated after a work party and accepted a lift in a taxi by a colleague, assuming she was to be dropped at home. Instead, the unnamed officer had taken her to Parliament House and raped her.
Higgins had initially complained to the police that day but withdrew fearing she may lose her job at Parliament House. When she made the allegations in 2019, she claims that Reynolds had not supported her, and she was instead transferred to work for another minister. She worked there for a year before resigning a month before going public with her allegations.
After Higgins went public at least four other women have come forward and told the media that they were either raped or sexually abused by this same officer between 2016 and 2020. That occurred during or after drinks and dining out with him.
Reynolds has told the media that she has sacked this unnamed officer after the “security breaches” were reported to her, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has publicly rebuked her for not telling him about the incident when it was first reported to her.
In the first week of March, the media reported that Reynolds had referred to Higgins as a “lying cow” when the allegations were first raised at her ministerial office with some close colleagues. The minister has meanwhile apologized to her for the comments and taken medical leave on the advice of cardiologists.
Since Higgins went public, another case involving a Cabinet minister, surfaced going back to a rape allegation in 1988. At a dramatic media conference, attorney-general Christian Porter admitted that he is the person involved in the allegations. Besides, it is supposed to have happened when he was 17-years-old, and he vehemently denied the accusation that he raped a then 16-year-old woman. This woman committed suicide in June 2020, months after withdrawing the complaint to the police.
Porter has refused to resign or stand aside from his Cabinet post, until an inquiry could clear him of the allegations. “If I stand down from my position as attorney-general because of an allegation of something that simply did not happen, then any person in Australia can lose their career, their job, their life’s work, based on an accusation that appeared in print,” he argued during the media conference. He suggested that a non-judicial inquiry would undermine the rule of law. “What would that inquiry ask me to do?” he stated, adding, “to disprove something that did not happen 33 years ago?”
As attorney-general Porter appoints high court judges and other judicial officials, a reason behind calls for a non-judicial inquiry. But Porter argues that if he resigns, there will be no need for an attorney-general because there would be “no rule of law left in this country”. He has taken two weeks medical leave to attend to his mental health and assess the situation.
Independent handling of complaints
The government has asked Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to lead an independent inquiry into the culture inside Australia’s corridors of power in Canberra, following the sexual harassment and rape allegations. She told ABC Radio, that she believes, an independent complaint handling body may be needed to deal with staffing concerns in Parliament House.
Staff for parliamentary representatives are hired directly by the elected representatives they work for, where party loyalty may be more important than due merit or process. Commissioner Jenkins said there were several issues unique to Parliament House that needed to be investigated as part of her probe.
“One of them is that layer of employment arrangements, because it is so unusual who has the power to hire and fire,” she told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday. “There is some confusion if you’re in a ministerial office, where you go [with a complaint],” she said. Commissioner Jenkins hinted that in her report to the government in November, she would recommend an independent organisation to confidentially handle staff complaints and concerns.
Jo Dyer, director of Adelaide Writers’ Week and a friend of the woman who made allegations against Porter told ‘The Saturday Paper’ that it is important the inquiry is done by non-judicial officers, because what is at stake is not a criminal case but a moral and ethical case against Porter. What we are talking about is whether or not the person concerned is of “sufficient character” to hold the office of attorney-general and sit on the Cabinet table”, she argues.
Similar arguments are also being pursued against Defence Minister Reynolds with opposition members arguing that Morrison cannot wash his hands off the issues saying he was not aware about these allegations.
Veteran feminist and former managing director of the London-based ‘The Women’s’ Press’ Stephanie Dowrick, writing in ‘The Saturday Paper’ noted that “these are profound issues of attitude, of a sexism so lacking in awareness of itself that a prime minister can claim shock that a serious crime could allegedly be committed 50 meters from his office. Yet, only months ago, that same prime minister was on the record saying that victims of sexual assault should be believed … until they are not”.
Arguing that sexism is the claiming of power by one gender to determine the rights and conditions of existence of all, Dowrick points out “women can still be shamed, not for what they have done, but for what has been done to them”. She says that we are living in an Australia of 2021, where a coalition of the unwilling is “unwilling to make any, but cosmetic changes to their behaviour or outlook, and blind to the cultural, institutional and structural changes that needs to be made”.
“Is the fault with sincere commentators who confuse numbers of women in positions of power with essential questions of how political power is used — and for whose benefit?” asks Dowrick, posing another question: “Or is the pushback against any genuine radical ideas so ubiquitous and well-funded in contemporary Australia that all but the bravest are subdued?” [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 March 2021]
Photo: Criticism of the handling of the rape scandal in Australia involves Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Senator and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, and Christian Porter, Attorney-General of Australia. In the backdrop is the Parliament in Canberra. Photos from Wikimedia Commons. Collage by IDN-INPS.
IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.
This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. You are free to share, remix, tweak and build upon.