explainer

A year ago, Parliament House was rocked by abuse allegations. This is what's happened since.

Warning: This post deals with allegations of sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. 

It's been one year since we learnt the name Brittany Higgins. 

A year ago this week, the former Liberal staffer went public with allegations she was raped by a male colleague inside the Parliament House ministerial office of her boss, then-Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds, two years earlier.

Piercing through a decades-long culture of silence, Higgins spoke up and spoke out about being allegedly abused at 24, just months into her "dream job" at the nation's capital. 

Watch: Scott Morrison on Brittany Higgins' allegations. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

Her story, published exclusively by two media outlets - news.com.au and The Project - sparked a reckoning. 

"How could this allegedly happen in the 'safest' building in Australia?" we asked.

The news headlines came quick, then the rallies, the speeches, the outrage, the noise. 

Higgins, along with child sexual abuse survivor, Grace Tame, quickly made their voices heard. Fed up with the Prime Minister's handling of sexual assault claims, they called out the government again, and again and again.

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The government promised change. They promised they were listening. 

But what "proactive, preventative measures" have we really seen in the last year? And most importantly - are they enough? 

From the commended to the criticised, here are seven things that have happened in the 12 months since Higgins’ allegations.

1. The government passed the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act. But it left out important changes.

Seven months after Higgins went public with her allegations, the government passed the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, in September. 

The bill was an opportunity for the government to bring into law 55 recommendations made in the landmark [email protected] Report delivered by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins in March 2020.

But many say it was a missed opportunity. 

The act adopted just six of the 55 recommendations from the Jenkins report, which included 12 recommendations for specific legislative reform.

So what positive changes came out of the Act? 

One of the big changes to come out of the Act was broadening the scope of people covered by it. Thanks to the changes, public officials, including judges, members of parliament and their staff, are now included in the Act. 

The Act also made sexual harassment a sackable offence and clearly laid out that harassing a person on the basis of sex is prohibited.

Other changes included granting employees 24 months to lodge a sexual harassment complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission, instead of six, and recognising that sexual harassment is a workplace health and safety issue, meaning workers can apply for an "order to stop sexual harassment" through the Fair Work Commission.

It also ensured that all paid and unpaid workers are protected from sexual harassment.

Image: Mamamia.  

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However, it left out critical recommendations. 

It's a move Australian Council of Trade Unions President, Michele O’Neil, says there is no excuse for.

"The Morrison government should have urgently implemented every single one of the 55 recommendations in the [email protected] report, instead after almost two years they’ve ignored more than half of the legislative recommendations," O’Neil told Mamamia.

"This report was commissioned by this government and contains detailed recommendations to make workplaces safer for women. There is no excuse for not implementing all recommendations."

Independent MP, Zali Steggall, also told Mamamia she was "disappointed that the government chose to cherry pick recommendations", pointing out a key recommendation left out was a 'positive duty' on employers.

This recommendation, which was pushed for by both Labor and the Greens and insisted on by Jenkins, places a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment, discrimination and victimisation at work. 

"That was one of the aspects that the government hasn't put into action... it puts the onus back on employers to ensure they're providing a safe workplace, a workplace that is safe for workplace harassment, bullying, and sexual harassment," said Steggall. 

O'Neil agrees that this is critically needed. 

"64 per cent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, but most don’t make a formal complaint – prevention is our best defence, and it’s so critical that the government introduces a positive duty on employers to prevent harassment. This is the same standard that already exists for all physical hazards in a workplace," she explained.

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2. The government introduced a new independent workplace complaints mechanism. But it's been criticised for not going far enough.

Speaking to the National Press Club earlier this month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the most significant change that's been made to make Parliament a safer place for women is the establishment of a new 24-hour workplace complaints mechanism for staff and MPs. 

The independent parliamentary workplace complaints mechanism was a key recommendation of Stephanie Foster's review into how parliamentary workplaces respond to serious incidents, and is part of a new Parliamentary Workplace Support Service (PWSS).

"That process that we examined closely, that let down so many a year ago, and before, has been significantly changed, and for the better," said Morrison. 

But according to Higgins, it doesn't go far enough. 

When asked about the complaints mechanism at the National Press Club last week, Higgins acknowledged that while it would have been helpful for her if it was around at the time of her alleged rape, it is limited in scope.

"I'm cognisant that at the moment it is very limited. It is only for serious complaints or what is deemed by a certain small team as serious complaints and it's not an all-of-parliament mechanism. So it is still quite limited in scope."

"I don't think it goes far enough and that's why I fully endorse Kate Jenkins' recommendation of having a full - extended version of what's been started by the Foster Review."

Speaking about the limitations of the PWSS, Higgins told news.com.au, "the establishment of the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service is an acknowledgment by the government that the existing reporting framework has not been fit for purpose."

"While well intentioned, the ‘serious incidents team’ proposed under the new Parliamentary Workplace Support Service will have a severely limited ability to compel or sanction parliamentarians for failure to comply with findings made in relation to serious workplace incidents."

Image: Getty. 

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Another limitation with the complaints mechanism is that it isn't retrospective.

Under the system, "the incident must have occurred within the current term of Parliament but it's actually important to also take on historical complaints," Dr Maria Maley, Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University told Mamamia.

Dr Maley also said an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission (IPSC) - recommend by Jenkins' 2021 Set the Standard report -  is needed to act upon the findings of the PWSS. 

"At the moment the PWSS can investigate and make a finding about a complaint but then [it] has to refer that to the employing parliamentarian and the Parliamentary Services Commissioner. Where the parliamentarian fails to act on the finding, the IPSC can refer the matter to the Speaker or President of the Senate. They then can refer it to the Committee of Privileges and Members' Interests. That committee has limited options to act and is composed entirely of members of the major parties and numerically dominated by the government. 

"In a nutshell, the IPSC can provide an independent and stronger form of accountability and enforcement."

3. The Prime Minister apologised to those assaulted in federal parliament. But Brittany Higgins wasn’t originally invited.

Last week, we witnessed a historical moment play out in Parliament House.  

Scott Morrison and members of parliament offered an apology to victims of alleged sexual harassment, assault and bullying as Parliament resumed for 2022.

The Prime Minister started his apology by specifically acknowledging Higgins. 

"I particularly want to acknowledge Brittany Higgins, whose experience, and more importantly courage, is the reason why we are all here today. And I want to thank her for that," he said. 

Image: ABC/Mamamia.  

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However, despite being clearly acknowledged in the speech, Higgins wasn't originally invited to attend the event. In fact, it was Steggall who helped her and others secure a seat to the apology. 

"Parliament House is closed to the public due to COVID... But I put in a formal request to have guests approved and that's how I was able to get a very small number of ex staffers coming to hear the statement."

For Steggall, the lack of invite was very telling. 

"It still doesn't indicate to me that [the government] have fully come to terms with the importance of the Set the Standard Report, the recommendations, and the need to stop, consider and really take into account that you need to change your ways."

4. MPs are required to undertake respectful workplaces training. But it's only a one off.

A positive change we've seen come out of Canberra is the rollout of safe and respectful workplace training for federal parliamentarians.

The training, which is conducted in face-to-face sessions, was recommended by the Foster Report and is mandatory for Coalition ministers and staffers.

Other politicians and their staff have also been strongly encouraged to complete it. 

According to The Canberra Times, more than 90 per cent of federal parliamentarians have now completed the training and the remainder are being urged to do so in the coming months.

But Steggall, who has already completed the training, is calling for more sessions. 

"[The training] was really good, it's very informative and supportive and it was really useful. I would like to see it rolled out to be more than just a one off session," she told Mamamia. 

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Independant MP Zali Steggall. Image: Getty. 

"Even me as an independent, you come into this role with no induction process... and I don't have a party machine telling me what to do... There's very little support, the election is done, you're handed the keys to the office, and it's kind of off you go. There isn't much in the way of induction, or structure or training."

"I think the lack of direction and structure means not all MPs will have a full understanding of our OHS and HR issues. Not all MPs will have experience in dealing with staff and I think that's why we, as a workplace....there have been problems."

Listen to The Quicky, Mamamia's daily news podcast. Post continues below. 

5. Inquiries into sexual abuse allegations have been blocked, delayed and criticised.

The government hasn’t exactly had the greatest track record with inquiries regarding sexual abuse allegations in the last year. 

Last month, former Liberal staffer, Rachelle Miller, claimed her concerns about the inquiry into allegations of emotional and physical abuse involving Education Minister Alan Tudge, were ignored.

In a statement shared on Twitter, Miller criticised the "sanitation" of the inquiry and said she would not participate as long as it forbade investigations which might amount to criminal conduct.

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"The government has not listened to the concerns I expressed and has refused to negotiate the terms of reference," she wrote.

"The sanitisation of the inquiry in this way all but guarantees the government the positive view of history in relation to these events which suit its agenda, its view of the world and its immediate political interest."

"The government’s rush to judgement and sanitising of the terms of reference smacks of a political fix," she added.

Miller also said the government declined to assure her she would receive a complete copy of any report.

Meanwhile, in August, an inquiry into who in the Prime Minister's office knew about the alleged rape of former Brittany Higgins was suspended for a second time. 

Phil Gaetjens, the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, announced the investigation was suspended because of concerns it could "prejudice criminal proceedings".

"On the basis of legal advice received on 27 August 2021, I have suspended my inquiry until the conclusion of the criminal trial," Mr Gaetjens said in a statement.

"The action I have taken is strictly in response to the legal advice I have received, and does not relate to any of the content of the inquiry. No inferences in relation to that content can be drawn from the legal advice nor my decision to suspend the inquiry."

While it's completely reasonable and understandable that the inquiry has been stopped for the time being, it just means we're yet to see any conclusions. Any change.

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The government also controversially blocked a bill that could have led to an inquiry into former Attorney-General Christian Porter's fitness to retain his position as a cabinet member back in June.

Porter was subject to an allegation he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 when he was 17 years old.

NSW Police ended up abandoning the criminal case because of "insufficient admissible evidence."

In December, Porter announced he will quit politics at the next federal election. 

6. The government is working on a 10-year women's safety plan. But they initially only allowed two weeks consultation.

When the government opened the consultation period for their Draft National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children last month, it was met with immediate backlash. 

The government had only allowed Australians two weeks during a pandemic to provide feedback on the 75-page report, which outlines the government’s decade-long plan to eliminate domestic and gender-based violence.

Many advocates were quick to voice their outrage at the government's tight timeframe, a decision Higgins called "breathtakingly disrespectful". 

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Michele O’Neil, who signed a statement calling for the consultation period to be extended from January 31 to February 28, said she was "angry" when she heard the news. 

"We have seen this government announce consultative committees, inquiries, task forces and even royal commissions - and a lot of these have delivered detailed plans which would improve the lives of millions of Australian women. The missing link is action from the Morrison government," she told Mamamia.

Following the backlash, the consultation period was extended by four weeks to February 25.

As reported by SBS, a spokesperson for the Minister for Social Services, Anne Ruston, said in a statement, "Minister Ruston contacted state and territory ministers who make up the Women's Safety Taskforce over the weekend and they have jointly agreed to extend the timeline for public comment by four weeks, particularly in light of the COVID-related workforce pressure the sector is under."

Image: Mamamia. 

7. The government has introduced a new specialist task-force. But will we see real change? 

The government has introduced a new specialist task-force made up of government, Labor and crossbench MPs, to help implement all 28 recommendations from Jenkins' Set the Standard report into government workplace culture.

Higgins says the task-force, which met for the first time last month, "is an encouraging first step in making the systemic change necessary to ensure a safer and more equitable Parliament House."

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"I commend the government on establishing a nonpartisan leadership task-force with the hope they will seek to implement all the recommendations set out in the Jenkins review over the next two years," she said in a statement. 

However, one limitation of the task-force is that it's not completely independent, other than its chair, former public servant, Kerri Hartland.

"It does report to the presiding officers - the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate. [But] talking about all the people that are involved, they are not independent," said Steggall, a member of the task-force. 

Despite this, she said she strongly believes everyone on the task-force, including herself, "is committed to real change".

Image: Mamamia. 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Feature Image: Getty/Mamamia.