What you need to know about the Parliament House inquiries started in the wake of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations

What you need to know about the Parliament House inquiries started in the wake of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations
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In the days after Brittany Higgins went public with allegations she was raped by a former colleague in 2019, the Prime Minister announced a range of inquiries in response to her claims.

Since Ms Higgins first spoke last week, a further two women have come forward with similar allegations about the same man, and a fourth has alleged the same man “stroked her thigh” while they were at a bar in Canberra in 2017.

The inquiries cover a broad range of issues, from how to improve the workplace culture at Parliament House to who knew what and when inside the Prime Minister’s Office about Ms Higgins’ alleged rape.

Here’s what each will deal with and who’ll be overseeing it (but note, these are in no particular order).

Inquiry 1

One of the inquiries Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the day after Ms Higgins made the allegations was a new process to look at the workplace culture within the Coalition — i.e. the Liberal and National parties.

Its purpose is “to identify ways that standards and expectations and practices can be further improved”.

Basically, this inquiry will look at the broader workplace culture issues in Parliament House and what can be done to bring it in line with other institutions.

“So that professional behaviour in this place does not involve a young woman finding herself in the situation that she found herself in, that is unacceptable,” Mr Morrison said.

The woman heading this inquiry up is WA Liberal MP Celia Hammond, who is also the former vice-chancellor of Notre Dame University.

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The Prime Minister announced the inquiries in a bid to better support women in politics

Inquiry 2

The second inquiry will look specifically at what support is available to political staffers and what processes are in place for dealing with complaints.

This one’s being handled by the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Stephanie Foster.

Mr Morrison said one of the things he’d specifically asked Ms Foster to look at was making sure when people came forward with allegations of sexual assault there was a process, where the matter was automatically referred away and dealt with at “an arm’s length” from the office of the employee.

“Because, at the end of the day, Brittany did not feel that that occurred, and that’s what matters.”

Inquiry 3

The third inquiry is one that was announced a little later in the week. It is another look at the workplace culture inside Parliament House — but this one will be done independent of Government and will cover all parliamentarians from all the different parties.

Like inquiries 1 and 2, it’ll also look at what more can be done to make sure that political staffers feel supported to make complaints.

This one may take a little longer to get going, because all parties need to agree to the terms of reference of the inquiry, as well as who they want to ultimately lead it.

That said, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, who’s coordinating the inquiry, wants it set up by next week.

Labor Leader Anthony Albanese welcomed the inquiry, saying it needed to be done at “arm’s length” from all parties.

A composite image of headshots of three women, all smiling into the camera
Natasha Stott-Despoja (left), Kate Jenkins (centre) and Elizabeth Broderick (right) have all been floated as people to lead the independent review.(ABC News/Supplied)

“We asked for it, the government agreed to it, it’s a good thing that it happens,” he said.

Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has also been floated to lead the review.

Inquiry 4

As well as looking into processes and broader cultural issues, Scott Morrison has also tasked the head of his Department — Phil Gaetjens — to investigate who knew what in his office, and when.

To quickly recap, last week the Prime Minister told Question Time the first time his office became aware of Ms Higgins’ allegations was the Friday before.

But Ms Higgins said a staff member in Mr Morrison’s office reached out to “check in on her” in November 2020.

That and text messages obtained by the ABC, first reported by The Australian, allegedly showed a former adviser telling Ms Higgins he had spoken to the Prime Minister’s Office in April 2019.

Text messages showing a conversation about alert the Prime Minister's office about an incident
Text messages allegedly between Brittany Higgins, in blue, and a Liberal staffer in 2019.(Supplied)
Text messages showing a conversation about alert the Prime Minister's office about an incident
The Liberal staffer allegedly confirmed he “spoke to PMO”.(Supplied)

This is an internal inquiry and Mr Morrison has given Mr Gaetjens a broad scope and the power to ask for phone records or whatever else he might need in the process.

It’s not clear whether his final report will be made public.

Inquiry 5

The last inquiry would be any formal police investigation launched after Ms Higgins makes a formal complaint — which she’s expected to do on Wednesday.

On Friday, Ms Higgins revealed she had re-engaged with Australian Federal Police, saying she had “waited a long time for justice” and wanted the alleged perpetrator to “face the full force of the law”.

ACT police previously confirmed they spoke to a complainant in April 2019 but the complainant chose not to make a formal complaint.



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