Sydney – A former Australian government staffer has said she was raped in a minister’s office in Parliament and failed by her bosses after coming forward, prompting an apology from the prime minister Tuesday.
Brittany Higgins alleged she was sexually assaulted by a male colleague in now-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office in 2019, after a night out drinking with conservative Liberal Party colleagues.
Higgins told news.com.au that, after reporting the incident to a superior, she was asked to attended a formal employment meeting in the same room the alleged rape occurred.
Then age 24 and a few months into her “dream job,” she described feeling forced to choose between her career and making a report to police.
The revelation follows a string of allegations about the mistreatment of women in Australian politics in recent years, including bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.
Higgins told Channel 10 that she felt like a “political problem” that needed to be solved, with her bosses appearing “uncomfortable” if she brought up the issue again.
The government initially defended its approach following the revelations Monday, saying she had been encouraged to speak to the police and told she would be supported in her decisions, though an official conceded the choice of meeting location had been a mistake.
But amid growing public outrage over the scandal on Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison shifted gears and apologized.
“That should not have happened. And I do apologize,” he told reporters in Canberra.
Morrison said that — after taking advice from his wife overnight — he realized further action was needed to address the matter and announced an investigation into processes dealing with sexual assault complaints and a review of workplace culture in the Parliament.
“There should not be an environment where a young woman can find herself in such a vulnerable situation. That is not OK,” he said.
Higgins thanked Morrison for his apology but said she should not have needed to go public for him to take action.
“The Prime Minister’s announcement of an investigation into the culture in Parliament House is a welcomed first-step, though it is long overdue,” she told news.com.au.
Australia’s Parliament has been criticized for a “toxic” workplace culture that has allegedly spawned bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct against women.
The ruling conservative Coalition has also been accused of having a “woman problem,” with a spate of high-profile female politicians quitting Parliament ahead of the 2019 election and several citing bullying as a factor.
In response, Morrison has boosted the number of women in the Cabinet and says other steps have been taken to improve the parliamentary workplace.
But critics also point to a perceived lack of action when allegations of intimidation and misogyny were leveled against two government ministers late last year, saying sexism persists.
Higgins said she reported the alleged rape to Australian Federal Police within days but later chose not to make a formal complaint. She has now reportedly decided to pursue the case again.
The unnamed man accused of rape reportedly left his role in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
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