Scott Morrison (Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

Note: this story discusses sexual assault.

Extraordinary and disgusting revelations keep appearing of how the government responded and continues to respond to the alleged rape of former staffer Brittany Higgins by another Liberal staffer in a ministerial office, and each one peels another layer off Scott Morrison’s attempt to downplay and deflect its mishandling.

Underlying what we have learnt this week courtesy of Higgins’ bravery and dogged reporting by News Corp’s Samantha Maiden is a shocking absence: where was the outrage that a young woman had been sexually assaulted in a ministerial office by a colleague? Even accepting the claim that it was initially treated as a security breach until Higgins provided further information, that information should have prompted deep anger and a determination to address the matter as comprehensively as possible while protecting Higgins’ privacy and providing her with the necessary support.

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Instead, the “incident” appears to have been treated as an unpleasant diversion from the real task of pursuing the political interests of the Coalition. The excuse is that Higgins didn’t wish to pursue a formal complaint to the police, but she says this was a decision made in response to an implied threat, made by a current staff member of the Prime Minister’s Office, that she would lose her job if she proceeded with the matter.

What is equally outrageous is that Higgins has only been able to obtain key information — such as the role Parliament House security staff played both before and after the alleged rape and their response to discovering her in Linda Reynolds’ office — by going public with her story. Such details have previously been withheld from her, as has the CCTV footage from the corridor outside Reynolds’ office.

In this wilful refusal to provide information, Higgins has been the victim of the intersection of powerful interests: the political interests of the Liberal Party and the power of the bureaucracies who control Parliament House: the Department of Parliamentary Services, and the Department of Finance. Together, they have combined to turn a blank face to a victim of sexual assault, keeping her in the dark until shamed into admitting information.

At no point does any human sentiment of decency appear to have motivated this institutional response to an attack on a young woman. Instead, she endured the banalty of evil in the form of bureaucratic indifference.

Further revelations today demonstrate that the Liberal Party has no interest in providing justice or support for Higgins, but is motivated wholly by political considerations. Peter van Onselen revealed that Scott Morrison’s office “has been backgrounding that [Higgins] now-partner has a gripe against the government because of him being a former public servant”.

So we can now add smear to indifference and cover-up by the government. Smear of the partner of a rape victim and, by implication, a smear of her by suggesting the whole business is motivated by malice rather than a cry for justice or support. And done on the quiet, in the cosy world of backgrounding between political spinners and journalists.

Scott Morrison might insist he knows nothing about how his own office is smearing people in relation to the matter either — presumably after checking with the missus.

Anyone with a pulse would be outraged at what has been done to this woman — and how it reflects how political workplaces fundamentally operate. But the instinct to put partisan interests first ahead of basic decency reflects how, in a government already renowned for sleaze and scandal, the moral bankruptcy goes all the way to the top.

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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