Brittany Higgins
Former staffer Brittany Higgins interviewed on The Project (Image: Channel 10)

The “workplace culture” in Parliament House has been solemnly acknowledged by Scott Morrison as the reason it is a physically unsafe place for women to work. The prime minister is disappointed to have discovered that the culture is in such a poor state, and has directed that it be fixed.

Cultures, of course, don’t rape women. It was a man who (allegedly) raped Brittany Higgins. The relevance of Parliament House is that he felt comfortable doing it there, even though he had to pass multiple cameras and security guards along the way, leaving a trail even the AFP could probably follow. That says something about the “culture” of the place, for sure.

The culture which has been eluding Morrison is one of impunity. Ignoring his government’s epic fiscal corruption and considering just its sexual misconduct, the prime minister is currently harbouring in his cabinet two ministers accused of grossly inappropriate behaviour. Neither has faced inquiry or consequences. Really it’s the opposite of a culture — in parliament, nobody faces consequences for anything.

I spent a day in the building in 2019, as it happened just a few months after Higgins’ alleged assault. The first thing you notice in that weird, airtight place is how important — by which I mean self-important — everyone is. So much purposeful striding, intermingled with vital standing and arm-crossing.

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The second thing is that it feels like you’ve walked on to the set of a frat house movie — the early scenes when the frat boys are wearing matching polos and plotting something evil, before the drinking begins. The vibe is, well, adolescent.

Which came first: the rape-adjacent culture or the preppy boys unable to distinguish women from sex toys? To focus on either is to miss the cause altogether.

Culture cannot be made or changed; it’s simply a consequence of behaviour. A workplace in which women are frequently othered and harassed will have a very particular culture as a result.

The question is what drives, enables and rewards that behaviour. Hello, shared values. What are the values of Parliament House?

That is a rather more complicated issue than the one Morrison asked Jenny and has been reframing ever since. (Is rape bad?) As parliament is a melting pot of parties, each organisation’s values require examination if there is to be any hope of their representatives’ behaviour changing in a way that will reflect a better parliamentary culture.

It’s true that we can draw a straight line from private boys’ schools to residential university colleges to the ministerial suite of the Liberal Party. They have a common issue with institutional sexism, but that isn’t to say the problem is private school boys. Sexual harassers and predators exist and have been exposed in every political party. They come from all over.

Australian society as a whole maintains sexual violence at an epidemic level, with perpetrators facing a negligible risk of consequences. Parliament did not create that problem, but we are entitled to expect it to be an exemplar of enlightened attitudes and therefore behaviour.

The reason it is the opposite lies in the values of the political parties. Aspirationally, of course, they are the highest in the land. In reality, they are barely less venal than those of organised crime.

We are all well aware of the shift over time from old-fashioned notions of public service to transactional politics, the zero-sum game of winning. The major parties, having achieved ideological bankruptcy a long time ago (to the extent that the Coalition has literally no policies any more and the Labor Party is unable to stick with any for more than one election cycle), are in the business of winning elections and then exploiting the spoils of victory. Nothing else.

When you’re in an organisation whose cynicism drips off the walls, what is the practical value of a moral code? Observe how every member of the Morrison government has dealt with the Higgins story. The words and actions which in the context of workplace rape should be immediately and unarguably obvious have completely eluded the prime minister and his colleagues (even after the scandal was exposed).

What that tells us is that everything, in this government’s mind, is transactional. Even the simple proposition that women under its wing should not be raped by men it promotes is subservient to a higher imperative: power.

It’s just not that the perpetrators feel safe in their crimes, immune from any real perceived risk of being called to account. It is that they are acting on the extreme end of the scale of acceptability, having absorbed the lessons of what matters and what does not. Winning matters. People do not.

The parliamentary forum to which we have devolved is unrecognisable as the crucible of public service it was designed to be. It is a valueless cesspit, because it is serving the purposes of organisations whose sole value is power as an end in itself.

Not one of the many reviews Morrison has instituted in the aftermath of Higgins’ disclosure will address the thing that really needs to change.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit