Britanny Higgins’ Testimony Raises Serious Concerns About the Liberal Party’s Inability to Deal with SASH Allegations

CW: Explicit mentions of sexual assault and sexual harassment & institutional injustices

Art by Rose Dixon-Campbell

DISCLAIMER: The case is currently before the ACT Supreme Court and care has been taken to uphold the standards and laws of reporting and covering trials currently before the courts.

 

On 3 October, the ACT Supreme Court commenced the trial of former Liberal Party staffer, Bruce Lehrmann, for allegedly sexually assaulting Britanny Higgins within Parliament House. Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty to a single charge of sexual intercourse without consent.

 

Lehrmann was fired shortly after the alleged assault for a “security breach.” Scott Morrison at the time also stated to reporters that Lehrmann’s employment was terminated because of a security breach on the night in question and not because of his alleged actions. In an ABC Four Corners report that aired in March 2021, the Parliament House security guard, Nikola Anderson who found Higgins unconscious in Senator Reynolds’s office stated: “There was no security breach. Because these two people worked for Minister Reynolds, they were allowed access in there. Which is why we granted it.” This directly conflicted with the Liberal Party’s account of the alleged assault. 

 

Scott Morrison, speaking to journalists in 2021 claimed it was because of a security breach that Lehrmann was fired and not for the alleged assault. Morrison would later admit he needed his wife Jenny to remind him that sexual violence was reprehensible. An incredible embarrassment for what was supposed to be Australia’s leader. 

 

Now the Coalition is headed by Peter Dutton, the same man who openly said Nauru refugees faked sexual assault claims to seek legal asylum in Australia. It’s not irrational, nor exactly screaming “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams,” to believe that the highest levels of government attempted to cover up the alleged assault so as to contain the political fallout. The current state of the Federal Opposition is stacked with individuals that can be considered contributors to what Higgins described as ‘perception problems’ the Liberal Party has with women. 

 

On Thursday, Higgins was on the witness stand and her testimony was both revealing and damaging to how the Liberal Party reportedly treats women in the workplace. Higgins’ testimony implicated Fiona Brown (Chief of Staff to Senator Linda Reynolds) and Senator Reynolds herself as being more concerned with the “political implications” rather than her wellbeing. 

 

On the 6th  of October, Higgins testified that during their first meeting, two days after the alleged assault, Brown’s tone was “supportive” but became “political” during their second meeting. This second meeting, according to Higgins, occurred on the 1st of April when both Brown and Senator Reynolds were present. Higgins told the jury she felt pressure from Senator Reynolds and her Chief of Staff to not report the assault to police because Higgins felt her claims would pose a “political problem for the Liberal Party with women.” Furthermore, Ms Higgins testified that in the second meeting, it was apparently made clear to her that  Reynolds and Brown were concerned about her going to the police and made reference to the upcoming election.

 

It has been reported that this second meeting took place in the same suite, the same office and the same couch as the alleged assault. In her testimony,  Higgins stated, “I was quite panicked just on the basis that I was in the room with the couch.”  What’s more significant is Higgins testified that, whether or not it was intended she felt it was a “scare tactic.” Higgins further testified that: “My interpretation of that was if I raised it with police, there were going to be problems, and they wanted to be involved or informed.” 

 

What’s even more concerning from Higgins’ testimony on Thursday is the allegation that Fiona Brown had made her re-sign the Ministerial Staff Code of Conduct after Brown was made aware of the alleged assault. This of course has fuelled the perception that the alleged assault was seriously mishandled by a Chief of Staff to a Liberal Party Senator and Minister at the time. 

 

It doesn’t end there either. Higgins alleges that she was increasingly isolated at her job as an assistant media advisor by both Brown and Senator Reynolds. In the lead-up to the 2019 Federal Election, Higgins testified that Brown had told her that if she did not travel to Perth [for the election campaign] and instead stayed in Canberra, she would lose her job. Further, Higgins testified that she felt that Senator Reynolds “did not like her” on the basis that she had caused political problems and “how little she would have me on the road with her during an election as a media advisor.”

 

In summary, Brittany Higgins’s testimony has alleged: 

 

  • She was the victim of a sexual assault within Senator Reynold’s office.
  • Fiona Brown had made her re-sign the Ministerial Staff Code of Conduct after the allegation was reported.
  • Both Brown and Senator Reynolds had alluded that if she were to report the alleged sexual assault, it would have implications for her career.

 

During the 2019 Federal Election, there was minimal sincere regard or prioritisation of Higgins’ well-being and more concern for the “party implications” as stated in both  Higgins’ AFP police interview and court testimony. 

 

Within the few hours of Higgins’s testimony on Thursday, she claimed several incidents to have occurred, all stemming from the alleged sexual assault by the defendant, a former Liberal Party staffer – Bruce Lehrmann. These incidents, if true, paint a damning assessment of how a former Minister and current Senator, as well as her Chief of Staff, handle not only alleged incidents of a crime in the workplace (their very own office) but also how they treat survivors of SASH. Whether or not the alleged assault occurred prior to Senator Reynolds’s reelection, it should not have been an influencing factor in how Higgins felt she was treated and forced to, “choose between my career and going to police.”  Higgins has stated that by going to the media first in 2019, she wanted to, “address a cultural problem… I wanted reform on the issue.” 

 

The questions raised from this testimony that must be answered by our representatives and their staff are: Why did Fiona Brown force Britanny Higgins to re-sign the Ministerial Staff Code of Conduct? Why did a federal election supersede concerns for Higgins’ wellbeing, her career and her right to report her alleged assaulter? Why was the second meeting held in an environment which would obviously create distress and trauma to Higgins? Why was the alleged assault (in the second meeting) treated as a political problem to be managed rather than a serious crime that had occurred in their office? 

 

These questions in the interest of accountability and transparency must be asked to Fiona Brown and Senator Reynolds. Not only to ensure the well-being and safety of Higgins but to all workers in all workplaces – especially for the thousands of staffers that work in what is supposed to be Australia’s most guarded and safest building. 

 

The Liberal Party’s leadership must account for their systemic institutional failure and failure to adequately handle Higgins’ alleged assault to protect the millions of women in this country and the thousands they employ across the federal, state and local levels. 

 

In the wake of Brittany Higgins’s testimony, these questions must be answered and solutions implemented to prevent such an incident—in any and all workplaces–from ever occurring again. These issues do not exist in isolation, and unfortunately also exist within our communities. Especially at Australia’s supposedly ranked number-one university, which is still grappling with its recently released abhorrent SASH statistics. We must strive to pressure our leaders on campus and within government for further reform and mount a campaign against the institutional injustices and betrayal faced by an unacceptable majority of the population. 

 

If you or anyone you know is affected by the content of this piece, please contact one of the support services below:

 

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Crisis Line

(02) 6247 2525

 

ANU Counselling

(02) 6125 2442

 

1800 RESPECT

1800 737 732

 

ANU Women’s Department

sa.womens@anu.edu.au

 

ANU Queer* Department

sa.queer@anu.edu.au

 

ANU Respectful Relationships Unit

respect@anu.edu.au

 

 

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