2021 Australian Parliament House sexual misconduct allegations
In February and March 2021, a number of allegations involving rape and other sexual misconduct against women involving the Australian Parliament and federal politicians were raised, causing controversy especially for the federal Liberal-National Morrison Government. Two separate allegations involve rape, which have also sparked discussions over workplace culture, systemic misogyny and victim blaming within the Morrison Government. Since then, other female politicians and staff working in Canberra have publicly told of their experiences of inappropriate sexual behaviour against them.
2019 rape allegation by Brittany Higgins
On 15 February 2021, Liberal Party junior staffer Brittany Higgins alleged to two media outlets – news.com.au and The Project — that she had been raped late at night on 22 March 2019 in then-Defence Industry Minister Senator Linda Reynolds' office in the ministerial wing of Parliament House by a male colleague, who was not named, after security guards let the pair into the building. Higgins said she became heavily intoxicated at a work party and left with her colleague in a taxi, believing they would both be dropped at their respective homes; instead she was taken to Parliament House and raped while slipping in and out of consciousness. She was found half-naked, inebriated and disoriented in the early hours of the morning in the minister's office.
Reynolds, Higgins’ boss at the time, sacked the alleged assailant on 26 March 2019, four days after the alleged rape, for a "security breach", not the alleged criminal behaviour. Higgins accused Reynolds of not supporting her due to the politically sensitive nature of the incident in an election year. Higgins went to the police after the rape, but dropped the complaint in April 2019, fearful the report would result in termination of her employment. Higgins transferred to work for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business Minister Michaelia Cash for a year before resigning a month before going public with her allegations.
Reynolds, Higgins’ boss at the time, knew all the details of the alleged rape within a week of the incident. She had summoned Higgins to discuss the incident, in the office where it occurred. Controversy arose following Higgins' public announcement regarding Prime Minister Scott Morrison's awareness of the allegations. Morrison denied any knowledge of the assault until 15 February 2021. In late February 2021, it emerged that several other politicians, besides Reynolds, had known about the alleged rape but did not inform the Prime Minister. Senate President Scott Ryan knew about “an incident” the week after it allegedly happened, in March 2019. Speaker Tony Smith found out some detail in April 2019. Ryan says he only knew the full details on 12 February. Both Ryan and Smith are jointly responsible for security in Parliament House. Michaelia Cash knew about an “unspecified incident” in late 2019 when Higgins began working for her. She became aware of the rape allegation on 5 February. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton also knew about the allegation on 11 February but sought no further action, nor did he alert the Prime Minister. The prime minister’s office seemed to have known details on February 12, when it first got questions from news.com.au, but for some reason staff didn’t tell the prime minister. Higgins criticised Morrison's response and cast doubts over his claim of ignorance.
Reynolds publicly apologised to Higgins, as did Morrison. Morrison also announced two investigations into the workplace culture at Parliament House. Morrison issued a formal apology on 16 February and penned a letter to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, agreeing to develop an independent review into the workplaces of federal parliamentarians and their staff, as well as ordering an internal review into workplace culture and complaints handled within the Liberal Party.
Over the following weeks, three more women alleged they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by the same man, still not publicly named, between 2016 and 2020. One woman alleged on 20 February she was raped in 2020 by the man after the pair had dinner and drinks. On 22 February, a second woman alleged she was sexually assaulted by the man in 2016. A third woman also accused the man of unwanted advances and stroking her thigh under the table at a Canberra bar in 2017. After the story went public, the accused was stood aside from his job at a large corporation, where he worked from July 2020. He checked himself into a Sydney hospital and the next day he was in a private rehabilitation clinic.
On 4 March, it was reported that Reynolds had referred to Higgins as a "lying cow" after the initial media reports. The Australian reported Senator Reynolds made the comment in the open part of her office and was heard by several staff members, including public servants on secondment from the Department of Defence. Reynolds did not deny using the slur against Higgins, but said it was not about the rape allegation itself, but about reports of the level of support provided. Higgins threatened legal action against Reynolds. Reynolds and Higgins later reached a settlement in a defamation claim under which Reynolds apologised and agreed to pay damages to Higgins, which Higgins will donate to a sexual assault support group in the Canberra area.
Reynolds has faced pressure to reveal what she had known about the incident. On 16 February, Morrison publicly rebuked Reynolds for not telling him of the incident at the time. Reynolds was due to address the National Press Club on 24 February, but that morning she cancelled the address and was admitted to Canberra Hospital. It was announced that she had taken medical leave related to a pre-existing condition. As of 20 March, Reynolds continued to be on medical leave on the advice of her cardiologist, and has not been questioned in or outside Parliament on the circumstances or of her knowledge of the alleged rape.
Reynolds' sick leave was initially for two weeks, but on the weekend before she would have returned to work, she was advised by her cardiologist to extend her medical leave to 2 April 2021, a total of six weeks. Labor senator Kristina Keneally called for Reynolds to resign, saying "Is the Minister of defence, Linda Reynolds, trying to pretend she is (on one hand) well enough to continue as Defence Minister, but not well enough on the other to front up and answer to questions in parliament and the (Senate) estimates?" Keneally also called for an independent investigation into allegations against Porter.
On 30 April, Higgins met with Morrison and said she had a "frank and honest" discussion with him. Higgins said the pair also talked about reforming the legislation under which staffers are hired, known as the Members of Parliament (Staff) or MoPS Act.
On 22 May 2021 ABC Four Corners reported "Nikola Anderson, who has worked as a Parliament House security guard for 12 years, told Four Corners how she found Ms Higgins in the office of then-defence industry minister Linda Reynolds after the alleged rape. Anderson was asked to do a welfare check on Higgins, and around 4.20am found Higgins naked on a lounge. Noting Higgins was conscious and did not look to be in distress, the guard shut the door and went back to her duties".
On June 22 2021 9 news reported that "A partial brief of evidence about Brittany Higgins' rape allegation against a fellow parliamentary staffer has been given to prosecutors". Given only a partial brief has been provided, it is likely rape or assault charges are unlikely to follow as the evidence is weak.
1988 rape allegation against Christian Porter
On 26 February 2021, the ABC published details of a letter that had been sent to the Prime Minister and several other members of parliament, including Senate Opposition Leader Penny Wong and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. It alleged that a 16-year-old girl had been raped in Sydney in 1988 by a man who was now a member of Cabinet. The letter was anonymous, and included a statement by the alleged victim, who had opened a case with New South Wales Police in 2020, but closed it shortly before taking her own life in Adelaide in June 2020.
On 2 March, NSW Police stated they would not reopen the case as they had insufficient evidence to do so.
The identity of the minister was not disclosed, but on 3 March Attorney-General, House Leader and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter held a press conference identifying himself as the minister. Porter denied the allegation and said he would not stand down from his positions but would take leave to recover his mental health.
While some legal experts have opposed calls for an inquiry, others urged the Prime Minister to conduct an independent investigation into the allegation, along with Wong, Hanson-Young and the deceased's lawyer. However, Morrison refused to do so, stating it was unnecessary if the police had closed their case. Proponents of an inquiry compare the situation to that which led to an inquiry into the behaviour of former High Court of Australia judge Dyson Heydon in 2020. People who regard an inquiry as unnecessary compare the situation to when then-opposition leader Bill Shorten was accused in 2014 of raping a woman in 1986. No further inquiry was held after Victorian police investigated the allegation and concluded there was "no reasonable prospect of conviction."
The woman wrote that she had always remembered the alleged event, but had gained "a better understanding" through therapy in September 2019 which had "resurface[d]" her "somatic memories"; while friends said that she told them about the incident before this therapy. It later emerged that she had spoken to a counsellor about the alleged rape in 2013. A former boyfriend of the woman said that he had had "relevant discussions" with the woman in 1989 and with Porter in the 1990s, without specifying what was discussed. On 9 March 2021, the Four Corners episode "Bursting the Canberra Bubble" provided more background on the woman, and the circumstances of the night in 1988 when the alleged rape occurred. It was reported that the woman who made the allegation was prepared to provide a statement. NSW Police were notified and the woman met with detectives “on short notice” in Sydney on 27 February 2020. NSW investigators had applied on 10 March 2020 for travel to South Australia to interview the woman, but the application was vetoed by NSW Police Deputy Commissioner. It was also revealed that the woman, who lived in South Australia, had asked NSW Police in early April 2020 to make a statement via Skype, but was dissuaded from doing so. On 8 April 2021, it was reported that the woman’s boyfriend met with detectives twice in March and made a formal statement. Police are not proposing to reopen the investigation.
On 15 March 2021, Porter launched a defamation claim against the ABC and reporter Louise Milligan, for publishing the allegation. His claim argued that although the original allegation did not name him, he was "readily identifiable" and that the article was intended to harm him. The claim was withdrawn on 31 May 2021, with the ABC paying the costs of mediation and appending an editor's note to the original article stating that "The ABC did not contend that the serious accusations could be substantiated to the applicable legal standard". However, no damages were awarded. On 24 June 2021, the original dossier detailing the rape allegation against Porter was made publicly available by the Federal Court of Australia.
On Wednesday 20 October 2021, the Coalition government blocked a bid from the Australian Labor Party opposition to have Porter investigated by House privileges committee over whether he had breached parliamentary rules over his financial disclosures, despite Speaker Tony Smith having ruled that there was a prima facie case for further scrutiny. The move from the government attracted significant criticism in the media.
Australian Labor Party allegations
On 28 February 2021, Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson said a woman had sent her an email alleging she had been raped by a man who is now a Labor federal member of Parliament. A date for the alleged rape was not given, but it was described as "historic". The matter has been referred to Australian Federal Police.
In March 2021, details emerged of a Facebook group where women have shared stories of sexual harassment within the Labor Party, but without sharing the names of the alleged harassers. Deputy leader Richard Marles said he was "appalled".
Party leader Anthony Albanese said he had read the allegations and found them "very disappointing." He encouraged the women to come forward, to make formal complaints and "name names", saying the party needed complaints against specific people before they could take action. Albanese added that the party had recently set up a new code of conduct and process to handle misconduct allegations.
Lewd photos and videos
In March 2021, photos and videos were leaked from a group chat of male government staffers, where they had performed sex acts in Parliament House, including masturbating on the desk of female MP Nola Marino. Peta Credlin alleged:
- When an MP cleaned out the former staffer’s desk, and the computer, that MP uncovered evidence that for many months, that staffer had regularly met with other men during the middle of the day — while the MP was in Question Time — for orgies in political offices.
Alleged comments by Eric Abetz
On 24 March 2021, two days after resigning from the Liberal Party, Tasmanian House of Assembly speaker Sue Hickey used parliamentary privilege to claim Liberal Senator Eric Abetz said to her, "As for that Higgins girl, anybody so disgustingly drunk who would sleep with anybody could have slept with one of our spies and put the security of the nation at risk"; and in reference to the Christian Porter allegations, "the woman is dead and the law will protect [Porter]". Abetz categorically denied making the comments and accused Hickey of "trying to destroy the [Liberal] party".
Behaviour of Andrew Laming
On 26 March 2021, Morrison demanded that Queenslander federal MP Andrew Laming both personally and publicly apologise to two women for trolling them on Facebook, and stop using social media to post trolling comments. It was also alleged that Laming hid in bushes in a public park and took photos of one of the women. She reported the incidents to the police. On 27 March, Laming stood aside from all parliamentary roles after another woman accused him of taking a mobile phone photo of her bottom while her underwear was visible in 2019. Laming said he will take medical leave and use the time to complete counselling services he had previously committed to. Laming said he will resign from politics at the next federal election, expected by mid-2022, though he has not withdrawn his candidacy for preselection in the LNP party.
Fallout, public relations and reactions
The Morrison Government has been widely criticised for its handling of these scandals, with an Essential poll finding 65% of respondents (including 76% of Labor supporters, 51% of Coalition supporters and 88% of Greens supporters) saying the Government was more interested in protecting itself than women.
As well as from the Labor and Greens parties, the government faced criticism from within its own party. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who had been made aware of the allegations against Porter in 2019, criticised him for taking too long to come forward. Former Prime Minister John Howard, however, defended Morrison's decision not to open an independent inquiry into Porter's conduct. Former deputy Liberal leader and former Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop also criticised the Morrison Government and said that handling of sexual harassment was an issue for all parties in Parliament.
Australian of the Year and sexual assault survivor advocate Grace Tame also criticised Morrison's rhetoric during her National Press Club address on 3 March, criticising his use of the "as a father" phrase, as well as saying "It shouldn't take having children to have a conscience."
On 23 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison held an extraordinary behind-closed-doors meeting with 400 Coalition staff at which he admitted his government’s shortcomings in tackling sexism and bad behaviour and acknowledged they had put up with "absolute rubbish". Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said he was sorry if anyone had been let down or not felt supported, in a five-minute address during the meeting.
Cabinet changes were announced on 29 March, with Reynolds and Porter moved but remaining in Cabinet, and the number of women in Cabinet increased from six to seven. Morrison also announced a new cabinet taskforce on women’s equality, safety, economic security, health and wellbeing, to be co-chaired by Morrison and the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, and will include all women from the ministry as well as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.
The government will convene a national summit to set new goals to prevent violence against women, at a date which is still to be determined.
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