Every person who alleges sexual assault or rape needs our support. An investigation and trial is a nightmare for both parties. We can’t bypass that. Allegations have to be put to the test. Rape is against the law. Whether one occurred is something about which we have clear rules and a process to ascertain the facts.
Higgins’ boss, now Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, gave Higgins all the appropriate support when she heard about the incident. You might call it a textbook response. She listened to Higgins and respected the choices she made. She encouraged and assisted her to report what had happened to the police. Having spoken with the police, Higgins decided not to pursue the matter and asked that her privacy be protected. Almost two years later, Higgins changed her mind, spoke to the media and decided to proceed with the police report.
As tough as this seems, the fact Higgins chose not to lodge a complaint to the police until now allows people to wonder if there has been some sort of cover-up. The delay was her decision. I don’t blame her for that. But it’s made it harder for her and for everyone else. It has put Reynolds under an attack she does not deserve. Quite the opposite.
Reynolds offered Higgins the opportunity to work in a different place, namely Reynolds’ home state of Western Australia. Reynolds has been criticised for meeting Higgins in her office, the scene of the alleged crime. But at the time of their meeting, Reynolds did not know the significance of the couch. Because Reynolds respected Higgins’ desire for privacy, Higgins went on after the election to work in another office. Let’s put some clarity on that. If someone had applied to work in my office and the story going around was that she had come, drunk, into a previous minister’s office at the weekend, late at night, with a man, I would have thought very carefully before offering them a job. “Possible powderkeg” are the words which would have come to mind.
Veteran journalist Michelle Grattan described Higgins’ decision to go public as “the cluster bomb she’d tossed – in media terms, a highly organised operation with a kit of information circulated to news organisations”. Plenty of alleged victims understandably think hard about reporting a rape. Plenty take a long time to decide to pursue the matter with the police. Not so many have an organised media offensive. In whatever way they come forward, it takes great courage.
There’s some lack of clarity as to who in the Prime Minister’s office knew what and when. Ministerial offices depend on trust. It’s the most valuable asset in an office. If someone has let Morrison down he will rightly feel deeply aggrieved.
Labor Senator Penny Wong has urged the Prime Minister to stop treating the allegation “as a political problem”. It’s a clever tactic. Wong and Labor are using Higgins’ situation to be political, yet urge the Prime Minister to not do so. It is sadly all too common to see people using someone else’s misfortune to paint themselves as models of concern. You use a potential victim to promote your own caring credentials. It’s conspicuous compassion at its worst.
In federal Parliament, there is a high prevalence of advisers under 35. It’s a high-pressure job. They’re away from home, eating out and alcohol is at almost every restaurant. It’s a heady mix. There are things that could be done to improve the culture. But that mix will always be potent.