Parliament House rape highlights sexism at the heart of the system

The rape of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins by a colleague at Parliament House has exposed the depth of sexism and contempt for women at the heart of the Morrison government.

Higgins claimed that the sexual assault, which occurred in the office suite of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, was treated as a political inconvenience and would need to remain a “secret”. While initially reporting the assault to police she withdrew her complaint for fear of jeopardising her career in politics.

The alleged perpetrator was sacked but provided with two detailed references to a subsequent employer by Reynolds’ office. As we publish, three more women have come forward alleging sexual assault by the same former government staffer.

While Scott Morrison has spent the week scrambling to distance himself from the incident, daily revelations indicate a deliberate cover-up leading directly to the PM’s very own office.

At the same time Morrison made promises to deliver transparency and accountability and address a “toxic work culture”, it was leaked that his office was last week backgrounding journalists to smear her now partner. A text message exchange between Higgins and a Liberal staffer confirms Morrison’s office was informed soon after the attack in 2019.

The Liberals’ hostility to deliver a safe working environment, even for the women in Parliament House, is underlined by Morrison’s resistance to an independent inquiry. He has picked a conservative Catholic, Celia Hammond, to lead the review—a Liberal MP and former vice-chancellor at Notre Dame University, who has railed against sex before marriage, contraception and abortion and labelled feminism as “anti-family”.

Even if the review delivers recommendations, history has shown they will be ignored. The government has not acted on any of the recommendations from the comprehensive [email protected] inquiry into sexual harassment at work delivered last year, or the International Labour Convention 190 “Violence and Harassment in the World of Work”, to which it is a signatory.

Bravery

The bravery of Brittany Higgins and the other survivors of sexual assault and harassment who have come forward to expose the misogynist culture encouraged in Liberal Party ranks must be applauded. But the Morrison government’s disdain for women and negligent dismissal of the violence and harassment they face in the Australian community must also be confronted.

There is an epidemic of violence against women in this country with an average of one woman killed every week. Domestic violence cases have been steadily rising, spiking sharply in the past year during the coronavirus pandemic. Even with $150 million in additional domestic violence funding announced in March last year, support services are chronically underfunded and struggling to meet the increased demand.

Liberal Party policy is to starve and silence. In 2019, they axed funding to the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum—the peak body representing Indigenous survivors of domestic abuse.

In just the past week, against all expert and stakeholder advice, the government dissolved the Family Court into the Federal Circuit Court to please demands made by Pauline Hanson. The Family Court is often the only place vulnerable women and children can turn to for protection against violence.

The Liberals’ industrial relations attacks target casual workers, when women are 67.9 per cent of all part-time employees.

The Morrison government is the enemy not just of women it directly employs like Brittany Higgins but of women everywhere, especially women workers. A united fightback by union members over workplace rights and welfare services can drive back this disgusting, sexist government.

By Sarah Thorne

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