She made a 'soul-destroying' rape claim. Then 3 others came forward.

Written By: Livia Albeck-Ripka © 2021 The New York Times The New York Times
Melbourne, Australia Updated: Feb 25, 2021, 03:28 PM(IST)

Representative image. Photograph:( Reuters )

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To women’s rights advocates, the situation reflects the systemic misogyny in Australia’s halls of power, especially in the governing conservative Liberal Party

When a government employee first went to police two years ago with claims of being raped in Australia’s Parliament building, she dropped the case, fearful of losing her job. Two years later, she decided to speak out publicly, prompting a political fallout that emboldened her Wednesday to file an official police report.

In the days since she went public, three other women have come forward, telling local news outlets that the same man, a former Liberal Party employee, had sexually assaulted them.

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“Most cases of this nature don’t end up in a conviction,” the former government employee, Brittany Higgins, 26, said in a phone interview with The New York Times. “I’m speaking my truth, and I know it’s the right thing to do.”

To women’s rights advocates, the situation reflects the systemic misogyny in Australia’s halls of power, especially in the governing conservative Liberal Party.

Higgins said she had been questioned by the defense minister, then her boss, in the same room where the attack took place: the minister’s office. Those allegations drew an apology from Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “This should not be an environment where a young woman can find herself in such a vulnerable situation,” he said last week. “That is not OK.”

But he was excoriated for what critics called a “train wreck” of a response. He seemed to suggest that it wasn’t until he’d had a chat with his wife — who he said had asked, “What if it was one of your daughters?” — that he offered an apology.

Some current and former government employees said they hoped the accusations finally catalyzed a cultural shift in Parliament. Some women’s rights advocates said such attitudes toward women ran deep in the blood of not only Australia’s government but also the nation at large, which has tended to lag behind other Western countries on gender issues.

“We really refuse to believe women,” said Sharna Bremner, an assault survivor and the founder of End Rape on Campus Australia, adding that the country’s strict defamation laws have tended to stifle the #MeToo movement.

The new accusations by the other women, spanning 2016 to 2020, were reported by the newspaper The Australian and the Australian Broadcasting Corp. At least one woman who came forward said she had done so out of support for Higgins. The women, who could not be reached for comment, have not been publicly identified. They have not publicly identified the man, either.

“I’m so sorry they had to go through this because I know how soul-destroying it is,” Higgins said of the women coming forward. She and her partner both left their jobs as a result of her ordeal, she added. “It’s been incredibly difficult,” she said. “It’s been deeply painful for my family to go through, for my loved ones to go through. I commend them personally on their bravery.”

One of the three women, whose accusations were first published Sunday in The Weekend Australian, said she had chosen to tell her story to help shine a light on the “awful” culture in the Australian government.

The woman told the paper that she met the man last year for dinner. She said that after he bought her several drinks, they went to her home, where he had sex with her without wearing a condom, despite her telling him they could not have sex unless he wore one. She told The Australian that if Higgins’ case had been properly dealt with by the government in 2019, “this would not have happened to me.”

Another woman, whose accusations were published by The Australian on Monday, said the same man had sexually assaulted her just days before the 2016 election. The woman said she had just finished high school. The man bought several rounds of vodka and tequila shots for her and offered to “look after” her in his hotel room, she said. The woman said that, after falling asleep, she awoke to find herself half undressed and the man lying on top of her.

She told The Australian that hearing Higgins’ story made her think her attacker “has a pattern of behavior.”

Another woman, whose account was made public Monday, said the same man “reached his hand under the table and stroked her thigh” in 2017, during drinks with colleagues at a bar in Canberra, the ABC reported.

In the days since all four women went public, Morrison has announced several inquiries into areas such as workplace culture, how sexual abuse accusations are handled by the government and what his own office knew about the alleged assault of Higgins at the time. Some of the investigations will be conducted by government ministers and others by independent agencies, he said.

Critics have said the government’s response has been lackluster. Governmental inquiries, they say, are likely to fall short of the kind of drastic cultural shift required to change attitudes toward women in Parliament and beyond.

“A review is a political Band-Aid,” said Rachael Burgin, a lecturer in criminology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. “I’ve seen nothing from anyone in the government to suggest that they’ve taken it seriously enough to see some substantive change,” Burgin added.

Others have questioned Morrison’s claims that he had no knowledge of the alleged assault when it first occurred. Morrison has said he did not know about it until Feb. 12. He has since asked Phil Gaetjens, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, to conduct an inquiry.

Higgins’ former boss in Parliament, Defense Minister Linda Reynolds, has also apologized to Higgins, especially for holding a meeting about the alleged assault in the same room where it had occurred. On Wednesday, as Reynolds was set to discuss her handling of the accusations, she was hospitalized, citing existing medical conditions.

Higgins has said she was “determined to drive significant reform in the way the Australian Parliament handles issues of this nature and treats ministerial and parliamentary staff more generally.” She said that, for example, in 2019, an employee in the prime minister’s office had refused to provide her with access to the closed-circuit television footage from the evening of the alleged assault.

“Brittany Higgins is giving us an opportunity here to actually fix something,” said Clare O’Neil, a member of the opposition Labor Party. “This is a nation’s Parliament. We should be setting the standard, not the floor.”

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