Push to widen parliamentary abuse inquiries, amid ‘disturbing’ stories

Brittany Higgins alleges she was raped by a Liberal staffer in a minister's office.

Brittany Higgins alleges she was raped by a Liberal staffer in a minister's office. Photo: Supplied

Federal parliament’s review into sexual misconduct in politics should accept anonymous reports and delve into historic issues, independent MP Zali Steggall says.

The prominent crossbencher said on Monday she’d been contacted by numerous former staffers with “disturbing” stories from their time in politics.

It came as a third Coalition woman said she was also raped by the former government staffer who allegedly assaulted Brittany Higgins in 2019.

“I’m incredibly disappointed with how the Coalition has handled this matter,” Ms Steggall said in Canberra on Monday.

Zali Steggall outside Parliament on Monday. Photo: TND

“Certain standards, certain codes of practice are absolutely needed in this place … we can have HR standards that are consistent with the private sector.”

Later on Monday a fourth woman emerged with more claims about the same former Liberal staffer.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison still faces questions about what his office knew about Ms Higgins’ 2019 rape, and why he claims he was not aware of it until last week. He has launched multiple reviews and investigations into the Coalition, and Parliament more broadly, including a review of workplace culture.

In response to the latest allegations, published in The Australian, Labor’s shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland said “there now appears to be an alleged serial rapist on the loose in the ministerial wing of Parliament House”.

“How on earth have we gotten to this position where we now have the Prime Minister saying he didn’t know and no one thought it was prudent to tell him?” she said on Sky News.

Ms Steggall joined growing calls for Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, former commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, or experienced public servant and investigator Vivienne Thom to lead the reviews. The member for Warringah said that, in the two years since she had entered federal politics, she had been told distressing stories.

“I have heard some very disturbing things and some really unsavoury examples of imbalance of power. Generally men, but not always men,” she said.

Brittany Higgins with Michaelia Cash. Photo: Supplied

“There have been instances and allegations in relation to some women as well, who abuse their position of power, and that’s really disconcerting.”

Ms Steggall said she had heard some of the stories since Ms Higgins went public with her rape claims. She said former political operatives had called her office with allegations about politicians and others.

Ms Steggall called for the independent investigations to accept anonymous reports.

“We’ve actually had contact with our office of past staffers, who are indicating they had distressing incidents and experiences, and also thankful we are shining a light on this,” she said.

“I’ll be urging for the independent investigation to have the ability for anonymous reporting, so people can bring forward their stories without fear of reprisal or their careers being further tarnished.”

Linda Reynolds wiped away tears in the Senate on Thursday. Photo: AAP

Ms Steggall also called on the government to urgently implement the recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2020 inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace, which she claimed had been ignored in Canberra.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham is in charge of the bipartisan inquiry.

On Monday, he told the Senate that he had meetings planned all week with politicians and staff from across the political spectrum. He also said the government would welcome the input of any former staff, including Ms Higgins – a request she had made last week.

“I also reached out over the weekend and had discussions with sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, to ensure that I have her advice, as I work alongside parliamentary counterparts to do so,” Senator Birmingham said.

“It is a privilege to work in this place … And we must all live up to the highest standard that people should expect at this workplace.”

Parliament pressure resumes

Mr Morrison is expected to be grilled again about his timeline of events, as well as why his office did not inform him of the rape allegations, when Parliament resumes on Monday.

Ms Higgins’ boss at the time of the 2019 incident, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, is also due to provide a response to a Senate Question Time inquiry, which she was unable to answer after breaking down in tears on Thursday.

Senator Reynolds asked to answer the question on Monday – a response that long-time parliament watchers say is almost unheard of in recent history. Labor senator Katy Gallagher accused Senator Reynolds of “trying to hide”.

Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, turned the blowtorch again on the PM in a blistering speech on Monday, accusing him of previously turning a blind eye to allegations and evidence of workplace bullying, harassment or misconduct.

“He said he was angry about being left in the dark – but there have been no consequences for those he claims left him in the dark,” Senator Wong said.

“Mr Morrison talks about culture. But what he is not talking about is the culture he leads, the culture he leads in his own government, where no matter what happens, he is never responsible. Where nobody is accountable for anything. And where serious crime was covered up.”

Mr Morrison on Sunday re-affirmed the timeline he repeatedly told the Parliament last week – that his office learned of Ms Higgins’ allegations only when contacted by News Corp on February 12.

Mr Morrison maintains he personally knew nothing of the allegations until Ms Higgins’ story was published at 8am last Monday, some 66 hours later. That’s a claim that has boggled the minds of many journalists and politicos inside Parliament House.

It is also “implausible”, according to Anthony Albanese. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called it “inconceivable” that Mr Morrison’s office didn’t know earlier, saying it would have been “absolutely baffling”.

“That’s what happened. I expressed my view to my staff very candidly on Monday,” Mr Morrison said on Sunday.

“You can be assured that [his staff] know exactly my views about that matter.”

For confidential help and support surrounding sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or call 1800 737 732

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