It has taken too long to confront Canberra’s toxic culture

Brittany Higgins, the former Liberal staffer who alleges she was raped on a couch in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ parliamentary office, has every right to be angry. While the truth of the alleged incident is for the courts to decide, there is no doubt that from the moment she returned to work, she was treated appallingly.

Ms Higgins’ story is damning, but not unfamiliar. A young woman in a junior staffing role was made to feel like it was a “political problem”. Ms Higgins explained: “It wasn’t a staffing problem, it wasn’t an HR problem, it wasn’t a human problem, it immediately was, ’OK, we have an issue.”

Brittany Higgins alleges she was raped by a colleague in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office at Parliament House in March 2019.Credit:Channel Ten/Alex Ellinghausen

As time went by, it became evident to Ms Higgins that she would have to choose between her career as a political staffer and pursuing her rape claim. No one supported her in thinking she could do both. Her words offer a unique insight into the Canberra bubble: “There is a strange culture of silence in the parties. The idea of speaking out on these sort of issues, especially around a [election] campaign, it’s like letting the team down. You are not a team player.”

In the pressure-cooker world of Canberra politics, Ms Higgins was unequivocal – it’s always about putting the reputation of the party ahead of the individual. It’s a scenario we have heard all too often before, with at times deplorable consequences.

Let’s revisit the words of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: “Many leaders of religious institutions demonstrated a preoccupation with protecting the institution’s ‘good name’ and reputation. Actions were often taken with the aim of avoiding, preventing or repairing public scandal, and concealing information that could tarnish the image of the institution and its personnel.”

Or, more recently, the words of the Do Better report into racism at the Collingwood Football Club: “Collingwood’s response has often been perceived as one where claims of racism are dealt with in terms of damage control and protecting the brand, rather than seeking to address issues and make change.”

Time and again, close scrutiny of discrimination and sexual assault within organisations has found the leadership wanting, with the rights of individuals being overshadowed by the desire to protect the reputation of the organisation.

But this time it is different.

We have watched politicians from all sides offer platitudes of support for those who have been subject to discrimination and abuse by a range of organisations. They are often accompanied by demands for change and accountability.

And yet Ms Higgins has once again put on full public display what a litany of women have now revealed: the institution at the heart of our parliamentary democracy that is responsible for enacting and protecting people’s rights has systemic problems in the way it treats women, especially young women.

To his credit, the Prime Minister has asked for a review of the Coalition’s complaints-handling processes and workplace culture. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster will look at how parliamentary staff can be better supported. He went further late yesterday, engaging Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, in his role as Special Minister of State, to co-ordinate an independent review involving all parties and independent MPs into the workplaces of parliamentarians and their staff. Its stated intent – “to make our workplaces safer for everyone” – is welcome.

But it has taken far too long to confront this toxic culture. Ms Higgins deserves more than just pious words for showing the courage to speak the truth to power.

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