Is the Australian Parliament the Least Safe Place to Be a Woman?

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Is the Australian Parliament the Least Safe Place to Be a Woman?

A series of sexual assault and harassment allegations have rocked the Australian government. But will it take action?

Is the Australian Parliament the Least Safe Place to Be a Woman?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Thennicke

On February 15, on national television, a former federal government staffer detailed how she had been raped inside the Parliament House building and was forced to choose between reporting it to the police or keeping her job. The airing of the claim should have been enough to force the resignation of Defense Minister Linda Reynolds, whom the staffer, Brittany Higgins, worked for and faced unfair treatment from in the aftermath.

But instead, the government attempted a cover up, doubled down, and deflected blame. In concluding the on-air interview, the reporter opined: “It sounds to me like the easiest place in this country to rape a woman and get away with it, is Parliament House in Canberra.”

The idea of Parliament House, home to the Australian government, being one of the least safe places to be a woman in Australia has only picked up momentum in the weeks since, with at least half a dozen separate allegations of rape and sexual misconduct against the government having been made, including a claim against Australia’s senior law officer, Attorney General Christian Porter. 

Four days after Higgins made her claim on national television, a second woman told the Australian newspaper that the same senior staffer who had attacked Higgins also attacked her. “I am telling my story because I want to support Brittany and I want to help shine a light on this awful culture,” she said.

A few days later, two more women came forward, claiming that the same man had sexually assaulted them. 

Then came an allegation against a senior cabinet minister. On February 26, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that a letter had been sent to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and forwarded to the Australian Federal Police containing details of an alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl by a senior cabinet minister, later revealed to be Attorney General Christian Porter.

The woman, who claimed Porter raped her in 1988 in Sydney while at a debate competition, sought psychological support as early as 2013 and in February 2020 spoke to New South Wales police, who established a taskforce to investigate. However, the investigation was delayed by the pandemic. The woman then took her own life in June 2020.

In 2019, the woman prepared a long, graphic statement detailing the attack for a solicitor. 

“This is my story, plain and simple. It’s not pretty, but it is mine,” she wrote. “And I stand by it, every single word and image in this document is true.”

“If this story does become public knowledge, I hope that it will encourage other women to come forward. Not for me, but for themselves… I also hope that other people who have endured similar traumas, should these facts become public knowledge, will feel less alone.”

At least half a dozen friends of the woman have spoken to Australia media to corroborate her claims, but the woman’s death means a criminal investigation can no longer proceed because the allegation cannot be tested. New South Wales police have since closed their investigation.

After more than a week of intense public speculation and media reports on the allegation without revealing the accused’s identity, a distraught Christian Porter appeared before the media in Perth.

“The things that are being claimed did not happen,” he said. “Nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened.”

Porter told reporters that Morrison had given him his “full backing” and that he would not be stepping aside as attorney general.

“If I stand down from my position as attorney general because of an allegation about something that simply did not happen, then any person in Australia can lose their career, their job, their life’s work based on nothing more than an accusation that appears in print,” he claimed. “If I were to resign and that set a new standard, there wouldn’t be much need for an attorney general anyway because there would be no rule of law left to protect in this country.”

As the chief law officer of the nation, Porter controls one of the most senior government portfolios and is responsible for legal affairs. Therefore, observers have criticized him as unfit to continue managing that position given the claims made against him. 

Responding to whether he would support an independent inquiry into the allegation, Porter said: “What would that inquiry ask me to do? To disprove something that didn’t happen 33 years ago… I honestly don’t know what I would say to that inquiry. Of course, I can’t.”

Queens Council lawyer Author Moses told Four Corners that it would be “unprecedented” if any inquiry into rape allegations against Porter were to be held after the New South Wales police ceased their investigation.

But in March 2019, also out of step with the conventional approach to sexual harassment, the High Court of Australia approved an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon. At the time, that investigation was heralded as unprecedented. And as Josh Bornstein, a lawyer at Maurice Blackburn, has noted, both the prime minister and the attorney general welcomed that investigation. 

“As various legal experts can attest, allegations of criminal conduct are routinely in royal commissioners, coronial inquests, anti-corruption bodies, sporting disciplinary tribunals, and workplace investigations,” Bornstein wrote. “Under the rule of law, the courts do not have a monopoly on dealing with alleged crimes.”

This also isn’t the first time Porter has faced claims of sexual abuse or harassment. The ABC reported in November of last year details of Porter’s alleged history of sexism and inappropriate behavior. 

Despite the growing calls for an independent inquiry, the prime minister and other senior ministers have refused. Morrison said Tuesday at a press conference in Sydney that he did not seek advice from the government’s most senior independent lawyer, the solicitor general, before rejecting the calls. 

A former solicitor general, Justin Gleeson, told the ABC following Morrison’s press conference that the prime minister should have referred the allegations to the solicitor general, who could advise whether “the material is sufficiently credible to justify an executive inquiry being instituted.”

On Monday, on International Women’s Day, another three women came forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior by another senior government employee.

With the additional three, there are now at least six women who have made formal complaints to police about Frank Zumbo, a trusted advisor to a member of parliament, Craig Kelly. 

Adding salt to the wound, Australia’s top military officer, General Angus Campbell then told cadets not to make themselves prey to sexual predators while being out late at night “alone” and “attractive.”

Australian of the year and sexual abuse survivor Grace Tame, speaking at the National Press Club, criticized Morrison for stating that he responded to the Higgins allegations after his wife told him he had to think about it “as a father.” 

“It shouldn’t have taken having children to have a conscience. And actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience,” she said.

One of the few women to progress to the upper ranks of government, Julie Bishop, who served as deputy leader of the governing Liberal Party and minister for Foreign Affairs until she resigned in 2018, said on Monday night that “if the events of the last few weeks haven’t led political parties to embrace change, I don’t know what has to happen.”

“They are very serious allegations, and they seem to be continuing,” she told the ABC. “There are changes that can be made. There are things that can be done. Parliament house must have this conversation.”