Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault*
Translation: they all mean ‘being raped by a man’
On Tuesday the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, gave a Press Conference, the transcript of which is reproduced below. The main topic of the conference was the Prime Minister’s reaction to allegations of rape made by Brittany Higgins, aired on Monday, February 15th.
What followed was a master class in the use of passive voice, euphemism, deflection, and perhaps most appallingly, subtle victim smearing. While I was writing this, news broke that Ms. Higgins, having seen Morrison’s press conference and remarks, accused him of “victim blaming”. I think her claims are justified, as you’ll see.
I thought the entire conference and subsequent Q&A was so revolting that I decided to dissect the whole performance, like an anatomy lesson, to lay bare the component evasions and hypocrisy. It’s quite long, so if you just want a précis, here it is:
Assume it happened, but…
First, and most importantly, the topic of this conference was the alleged rape of Ms. Higgins by an unnamed assailant. The alleged rape took place in the same place and on the same night as a documented security breach at Parliament House, but the whole of Morrison’s remarks are clearly and entirely framed on the presumption that the alleged rape also occurred. If you attempt to read them on the assumption that he doesn’t believe it happened, they make no sense whatsoever. This makes what he does say, and how he says it, all the more revolting.
Since, for now, the allegation remains unproven however, it’s understandable that none of the discussion uses the term “rape”, or “sexual assault”.
Never refer to the alleged crime
However what is remarkable, bizarre even, is that in fact the phrase “alleged rape” is never uttered. Remember, what’s alleged and what’s under discussion is exactly and specifically that: a violent and illegal act by a man against a non-consenting woman. A rape has been alleged. The entire press conference wouldn’t be taking place were it not for that specific allegation. Yet the act is never named, and even the existence of the alleged rapist isn’t even mentioned until near the end of the conference.
Instead Morrison uses an array of banal, anodyne terms for the most heinous and violent sexual crime. He calls it “a vulnerable situation”. He calls it “a position of vulnerability”. He refers to it as a “situation”, “incidents of this nature”, and an “event”. He speaks of it as “an issue” and “what has occurred”. It’s deliberate, and it’s appalling as he repeatedly and consistently attempts to quietly translate an alleged violent crime into a “situation”.
Never even refer to the alleged criminal
What’s also noticeable is the translation from the active voice to the passive voice, and that the subject of the sentences moves from the alleged rapist to the victim.
What (allegedly) happened is a straightforward case of the active voice. “Mr. X (allegedly) raped Ms. Higgins.” However Morrison neither wants to mention the alleged crime nor the alleged criminal. So instead of “This is shocking! Mr. X allegedly raped Ms. Higgins! What should we do to prevent Mr. X and those like him, and deal with Ms. Higgins’ trauma.” we’re told instead about “the situation Ms. Higgins found herself in”!
Reflexive verb. No alleged criminal in sight. Ms. Higgins is no longer the victim of an alleged violent crime, committed by an alleged violent criminal, she’s just “finding herself in a situation”. Notice that the alleged rapist has disappeared from the conversation entirely, and Ms. Higgins is now the subject of the sentence, not the object, and what she’s “doing” is “finding herself in a situation”, not even “being allegedly raped”.
How can a woman “prevent” herself from “finding herself in this situation” when she has no control over “the situation”, which in reality is a man deciding to rape her?
Let’s be really clear about this. When a man commits sexual violence, the initiator of the violence and the subject of the sentence and the active party is the man. The man assaults the woman. The woman isn’t looking around to find something, and “finds herself being raped”, or even more euphemistically “finds herself in a situation”, but that’s the bizarre language the Prime Minister is using to remove the alleged rapist and to airbrush out the unpleasant reality of the assault.
Now that the (alleged) rapist has been removed, and the discussion is entirely about the victim “finding herself” somewhere, Morrison moves on to the second objectionable goal, which is to frame all of the discussion in terms of “safety” and “vulnerability”.
Talk about “solutions” without mentioning the crime or the criminal
The topic is treated as though the risk of being raped is some sort of Occupational Health and Safety issue, something that can be addressed by the woman. After all, the problem is the woman’s safety, and the woman’s vulnerability. So it can be addressed by the woman wearing the right kind of boots, or a hard hat to stop bricks falling on their heads. In other words, it’s about what the victims can do to stop bricks falling on their heads. The stark, obvious reality that in order to prevent rape you have to stop rapists is avoided altogether. Morrison keeps talking about “vulnerable situations” and “being safe”, which all have the potential victim as the subject, while the actual perpetrator and the only reason the rape will ever happen—a rapist—never enters the conversation.
To return to the hard-hat analogy: if you were vulnerable from falling bricks then wearing a hard hat is a sensible strategy. Bricks, after all, don’t throw themselves. If, on the other hand, there’s someone throwing bricks at you then the best solution is to stop that person, not to pretend they don’t exist and that bricks, or rapes, just materialise out of thin air. But for Morrison, (alleged) rape just happens, and women “find” themselves in that “situation”.
Avoid at all costs saying how you’ll ensure safety
The surreal nature of this sanctimonious talk of “safety” and “vulnerability” becomes obvious the instant anyone asks the most obvious question: HOW? How are you going to “ensure safety”?
The danger, the threat, the unsafe “situation” isn’t a place. Nowhere is safe; if a Minister’s office in Parliament House isn’t safe, it clearly has nothing to do with place. Likewise the danger, the “situation” isn’t a thing, it’s not some inanimate object or pathogen. Women aren’t vulnerable because they’re not wearing safety boots. In fact the threat, the “situation” has nothing to do with the woman at all, except as victim.
The threat and lack of safety comes from a another person, a man, and it’s then clear why amidst all the abstract rhetoric there isn’t a single substantive proposal put forward as to HOW this safety is to be achieved, as to HOW this “vulnerability” will be protected against, because the threat comes from the one thing that has been carefully not mentioned during almost the entire conference.
How to make women “safe” from men? An obvious solution springs to mind—ban all men from Parliament House.
When the totally ridiculous nature of that solution becomes apparent, so does the total hypocrisy of all of Morrison’s cant about wanting his daughters to have a safe workplace. Here’s the reality: women are totally irrelevant to this conversation, and so is the workplace. They play no part in it, just as they play no part in the assault except as random victims. All of the problem and all of the behaviour belongs to MEN, and continuing to talk about making women “safe” is a deliberate and cowardly way to avoid addressing the problem.
Morrison knows, and the media know, that the only solution to this problem is to change the behaviour of MEN. Change their attitudes, change their upbringing, change the patriarchal nature of society that obviously leads them to believe that it’s acceptable for them to take women and their bodies by physical violence. None of this is mentioned. All Morrison talks about is making sure women aren’t “vulnerable” and don’t “find themselves in this situation”; in other words, being raped by a man.
The next woman to be sexually assaulted in Parliament House won’t “find herself” on the floor, a man will have decided to put her there, and done it.
Morrison however was not forthcoming on how to update the OH&S manual to prevent that “accident”, sorry, “incident”, sorry, “situation”, or how he’ll ensure that it mightn’t be one of his daughters, because no woman chooses to be assaulted in any workplace, but in his entire conference Morrison studiously avoided mentioning MEN at all, despite them being the sole cause and only solution to the problem he claims to be addressing. (I’ve written a bit more about where the problem lies here.)
Compassionate employer, or Counsel for the Defence?
The last, and perhaps most revolting aspect of Morrison’s remarks was his repeated, sly attacks on Ms. Higgins: on her veracity, on her memory, on her emotional stability, and on her failure to immediately press charges. Morrison knows perfectly well that in our culture sexual assault is an awful crime to experience, a terribly difficult crime to admit to, and a potentially life-changing crime to report and seek justice for. Nevertheless, his remarks clearly indicate that he has already taken up the role of counsel for the defence, not that of a neutral and concerned employer. Perhaps the simplest way to test this is to do what he claims to have done—imagine the victim is one of his daughters.
For this I’ll need to quote specific parts of the transcript. The entire transcript is presented below, and relevant sections for all of my arguments are highlighted in red. Here are excerpts with commentary explaining how Morrison is clearly defending the party and casting doubt on Ms. Higgins.
“despite what were the genuine good intentions of all those who did try to provide support”
First of all note that according to Morrison, he only had a day’s notice of Ms. Higgins’ allegations, and in fact only heard her interview late the previous evening. Despite being Prime Minister, and even though he doesn’t hold a hose, somehow in that short intervening period he has read all the evidence, interviewed people and come to a conclusive personal opinion that everyone who tried to provide support had genuine good intentions. Further, there was more than one of them, but DESPITE them all trying to provide support, Ms. Higgins wasn’t happy.
Is this a neutral picture? Can we believe Morrison has weighed all the evidence? Is it fair or reasonable in fact that he should now put himself in the role of adjudicator?
Most of all, are these the words of a concerned father assuming that whatever was done, it was insufficient or badly done, because his daughter is still traumatised and unhappy? No. This is the counsel for the defence of the party, already laying out the groundwork.
“that has always been the view of those who have had knowledge of these matters, that that matter should proceed to that level,”
Again, Morrison’s command of all the details is impressive. It has always been the view of everyone who has been involved that Ms. Higgins should have gone to the police. But she didn’t. So the clear implication is that the party knew what should happen, presumably counselled her to do it, but despite all their knowledge and good advice, she didn’t. Not their fault, is the clear implication.
A distraught father would be saying “I don’t believe you. The last thing you would have wanted is for the police to be called in, days before an election. Prove it!” Not Morrison.
“to make their own choices about how to proceed”
So Ms. Higgins decided, immediately after the alleged rape, not to report it. She had the presence of mind, you will notice, to take a picture of her bruised thigh, so there’s little doubt that she was considering it, but for any number of understandable and good reasons, she didn’t. However Morrison frames her doubt and indecision as her choice. Strictly speaking, it’s true, however someone who’s in fear of losing their job, or in fear of what the publicity will do, or actually is concerned what the publicity might do to the party’s electoral chances isn’t making a free choice, and immediately after an (alleged) rape it’s probably not an entirely rational choice. But Morrison places all of the responsibility on Ms. Higgins without providing the slightest mitigating factors.
A distraught father would be saying “She wanted to go to the police, but nobody urged her – quite the opposite, and there were not-so-subtle suggestions that she’d lose her job if she did. So she felt trapped. It wasn’t a choice.”
“and there is a good record of what all of this”
This is counsel for the defence of the party, pure and simple. There’s no need to make mention of records; this is a press conference, not a court of law, and Morrison is supposed to be sympathetic to Ms. Higgins, not acting as though his probity has already been challenged, or more probably that he fully intends to contest some of Ms. Higgins’ account and her probity on the basis of his “good records”.
What we all know, in any case, is that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. A diary entry is proof positive that something at least was intended to happen. The absence of a diary entry proves only that no entry was made, but says nothing about what actually happened that day. This is a remark that the distraught father would never make.
“Brittany had expressed her appreciation”
Still in full-on defence mode. Morrison is hell-bent on establishing that the party did everything that it could, did everything right, and the obvious implication is that the fault must lie with Ms. Higgins if, despite all their good work—work she even thanked them for—she was still unhappy. This is slimy behaviour, slipped in to a speech that purports to show how shocked he is, and how concerned that she’s suffered this, and concerned that it shouldn’t happen again—especially to his daughters. But what he’s doing here is pointing to one specific communication where she said “thank you” and from that implying that all was well, and her subsequent unhappiness was in no way the party’s responsibility.
Of course this is drivel. A single polite “thank you” proves absolutely nothing other than that not everything that the party did was bad, insufficient or ineffective, or that they weren’t simultaneously attempting to influence her behaviour for their own benefit. Adding this in, as though as a casual aside, is one of the more damning examples of Morrison’s real intent and hypocrisy. Does he expect us to believe that he’s read the entirety of correspondence between Ms. Higgins and the party, and noted this exchange? Of course not. It has been pointed out to him, and he in turn has chosen to make specific reference to it, with a very clear intent.
It’s easy to see through the facade of false emotion and false outrage and discern Morrison’s real goal here – to establish an initial defence of the party, and cast as much shade on Ms. Higgins as possible, starting with airbrushing the actual event and alleged criminal out of the picture and repeatedly referring to the “situation she found herself in”, then following up by repeatedly praising the party’s (alleged, let’s add) efforts and, by implication, apportioning all responsibility for their failure to Ms. Higgins.
“But clearly over time, she felt more alone in dealing with this and the trauma of this event”
Finally, this is something that you could expect a distraught father to say. The only problem is that it’s absolutely not what you’d expect a Prime Minister to say, even if he had a postgraduate degree in clinical psychology, which he doesn’t. A father might have this insight into his daughter’s state of mind, and she might have shared it with him, but Morrison has absolutely no business in pretending to understand Ms. Higgins’ mental state, and even less business, if possible, standing on a national stage and pretending to know her feelings.
Morrison barely knows her from a bar of soap, and for him to appropriate her feelings and mental journey and to purport to know, clinically and accurately how she felt is the ultimate in arrogance and disrespect. On national TV. It doesn’t even matter if she has said this herself, it’s not his place to claim to speak for her.
I’ve deliberately highlighted the phrase in red, because we’ll find that later on Morrison repeats it almost word for word. It’s clearly something he has rehearsed as a specific and deliberate formula, which can only mean that, as usual, it’s not meant to be supportive or understanding; rather, it’s intended to portray her as unstable and off-balance despite their genuine best efforts, remember that.
“Brittany – would be able to fully understand and be supported”
Moments later and he’s saying, by clear implication, that otherwise, and presumably up until now, she hasn’t been able to fully understand. Note that, again and as usual, the implied fault is all Ms. Higgins’. It’s not in any way attributed to failures by the party.
“That’s not to reflect on the genuine efforts that I know were undertaken by Minister Reynolds and others, but at the end of the day, Brittany has said what she’s said and that’s what we have to deal with.”
Here is pretty much the finished product of all the previous undermining. Paraphrased—we did our best, and I’ve looked at all the evidence, and I have nothing but praise for the party, but we simply haven’t been able to help poor Brittany, so here we are. Not our fault, it’s basically all her fault, but we’ll keep trying.
“particularly a young woman in this situation, should feel even if it were not the case, as I believe it was not the case on this occasion,”
Morrison continues to switch hats as he darts from supportive employer to neutral adjudicator to auditor. Despite Ms. Higgins’ clear and express claim to the opposite, Morrison after 24 hours and clearly an exhaustive review of all the evidence has decided that it simply wasn’t the case. Game over, apparently. The Prime Minister has spoken.
He has no business representing this as a belief, by the way. If he knows and can prove it then it will come out in an independent review. If he’s not sure he should shut up. He shouldn’t be explicitly contradicting Ms. Higgins here, and then hedging it about with “I believe”. He’s the Prime Minister of Australia, she’s a young staffer. This is just abuse.
“over time, and I think there were communications issues here,”
The assault continues. Communication requires two parties. If the problem were at the Liberal party end, he should say so. So by failing to identify where the “issue” lies, he’s clearly implying that it’s either at both ends, or entirely at Ms. Higgins’ end. Again, there is never any effort by Morrison to afford Ms. Higgins the benefit of the doubt, or to consider reasonable and plausible explanations why there might have been a problem at her end, assuming the problem was hers. Rather, all of the doubt and all of the presumed failings are left at her doorstep.
“she felt increasingly alone to deal with the trauma of what had occurred”
As I mentioned earlier, an almost exact repeat of this phrase is highly suspicious, and he’s not trying to paint a sympathetic picture here, in addition to assuming a knowledge he has no right to pretend to in a voice that’s not his.
“ongoing supports have not been successful and as a result she found herself in the situation she has”
Morrison sure is keen on women finding things, particularly themselves in situations. Reflexive voice and being in a “situation” is a perfect way to avoid any possibility of saying “we did this to her”. There’s no actor in the sentence, nobody did anything, Ms. Higgins just found herself there. This is disgusting.
Here is the jury’s verdict. Just as she “found herself” being (allegedly) raped, now she has “found herself” being left with no alternative than to take her case to the media, but in both cases there’s no actor there, responsible for her “situation”. Nobody’s to blame. She just found herself (allegedly) raped, or left without support.
And Morrison’s response is to smear her on national television, all the time pretending to care.
Note that the supports have been “ongoing”, so the party has never given up trying, this is all Ms. Higgins’ fault, and the “result” of her failure to respond to their ongoing support is “finding herself” with nowhere to turn.
What a despicable person Morrison is.
The full dissection
Of course there’s more to Morrison’s verbal dissembling and guile apart from smearing Ms. Higgins. Here’s the rest of his deflection, innuendo and hypocrisy. Again, these quotes are outlined in red below.
can find herself in the vulnerable situation that she was in
Translation: Damp-eyed Morrison is shattered that (allegedly) women are raped. He’s the Prime Minister of Australia.
that that is not a position of vulnerability that can still occur
Moments later he’s telling us that we’d be naive to believe that women aren’t still being raped.
here, or, frankly, in so many other workplaces around this country
The first of a number of not-very-subtle whataboutisms. “It’s not just in Parliament House that women get raped, you know,” as though that makes anything better.
wake-up call for all of us
This tired and frankly offensive piece of standard political rhetoric has no place in this conversation. A woman being (allegedly) raped is not a wake-up call. Mere weeks earlier Morrison shared the stage with the Australian Of The Year, Grace Tame, whose #LetHerSpeak campaign gained national attention. The issue of sexual abuse of women, so recently in the spotlight, didn’t require an alleged rape two years previously to wake up the Prime Minister—again.
so that professional behaviour in this place does not involve a young woman finding herself in the situation that she found herself i,
It’s hard to parse this gibberish. Apparently Morrison has decided that professional behaviour, at least in Parliament House, should not include violent sexual assault. Most Australians would agree. Most Australians would also probably find “finding herself in the situation she found herself in” to be an insultingly deliberate attempt not to call a thing by its name. She was (allegedly) raped. Not “found herself in the situation she found herself in”.
when incidents of this nature arise
Morrison is still determined to be as vague, euphemistic and anodyne as possible. His linguistic contortions in avoiding talking about the single subject under discussion clearly demonstrate that, despite anything he says, he actually doesn’t want to be talking about this or addressing it at all. Here’s a suggestion, Prime Minister: instead, say “when young women are raped by men“.
But, at the end of the day, I want to make sure that any young woman working in this place is as safe as possible, just as I would like my own daughters, if they ever chose to go down that path, or in whatever workplace they were working in, that they could have that confidence of their safety and, as a father, I could have that confidence of safety.
I’ve discussed previously what ridiculous nonsense this is. It’s objectionable for his mention of his own daughters, it’s objectionable because it attempts to frame not being raped as “safety”, and most of all it’s objectionable because if you rephrase it, it becomes “I want to make sure that young women aren’t raped in this place, or any workplace, and as a father I could have confidence they wouldn’t be raped”. Nobody would disagree. Unfortunately whether they’re raped or not has nothing to do whatsoever with the workplace or your daughters or any young women at all, it’s entirely up to the men, the men you haven’t mentioned once, and the men for whom you’ve proposed no solution whatsoever. It’s all just empty rhetoric, and all the more disgusting because of your faux concern.
I mean, cleaners go through offices every morning, as people know,
This isn’t a line worthy of a second-rate defence lawyer, much less the Prime Minister of Australia. Of course, people have their furniture steam cleaned on a Sunday morning all the time. Nothing to see here. Descending, momentarily to this degree of flimsy deflection shows the facade slipping for a moment, and the true nature of Morrison’s intentions shining through. He’s there to defend the party and erode Ms. Higgins’ credibility; a monstrous act when you consider it, given his position and responsibility.
I’m fairly recent to these events
Suddenly, after all the comprehensive and clear recollection of everybody’s roles and communications, and his certainty in the genuine and continuing efforts of everyone concerned he’s remembered that he’s only known about this for 24 hours. He wants his cake and eat it, as usual. He wants to be all-knowing and all-wise, but also be afforded the deniability of not having time to prepare.
After the election, and we were successful, she was employed in a new role
Two telling statements here. The first is his Trumpian inability not to boast of his success, even in this wildly inappropriate venue and conversation. Of what possible relevance is it that he won the election? However the next statement is remarkable for two reasons. First, because it’s yet another example of the subtle undermining of Ms. Higgins—you see, he’s saying, she didn’t lose her job at all—but secondly because in fact it’s perfect confirmation of exactly what she had said. She had a dream job, and she lost it. Luckily—or perhaps not—she managed to retain a position in the party, however exactly the fear she expressed was realised.
I think anyone in this place who thought these issues were specific to any one party or any one element of how this building operates I think would be being very naive. This is an issue that I think goes right across the span of all political parties, all offices, including, I suspect, even in the media. So let’s not kid ourselves here.
Another bout of whataboutism, this time even taking a swipe at the media. “Men from all parties rape women everywhere in Parliament House,” he’s saying. Not the most compelling argument, really. Especially from a man who, at the start of the press conference, confided with damp eyes that he was shattered that in this day and age a woman could be raped.
Now it’s “Let’s not kid ourselves here,” hey guys! I mean, you know, shit happens. Or rather, women find themselves in shit.
It’s also not a flattering reflection on which hat he thinks he’s wearing. His swipe is clearly taken from the perspective of the leader of the Liberal party, but he’s not standing at the lectern in that role. He’s assumed the authority of the Prime Minister of Australia, so pointing out that the problem is endemic throughout Parliament House isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for him. Rather it’s an admission of a failure to do his job, not just for one building in Canberra but for the nation. Something of an own goal, really.
Certainly I’ll be doing that as Prime Minister and leader of my own party.
Clearly you’ll try to evade your responsibility as both.
And the initial incident which was, to the best of our knowledge, at that point, was a security incident, was dealt with swiftly. Let’s not forget there’s an alleged perpetrator here.
The alleged rape has returned to being an incident, and here, very late in the day is the first suggestion that, if there was an alleged rape it follows that there must be an alleged rapist. Only of course Morrison can’t use that word, even with “alleged” in front, he’s not an alleged rapist, he’s just an alleged perpetrator. Perhaps he stole some staples. It’s pathetic, really.
And that person was sacked.
Stories vary on this. Earlier accounts said that he resigned, but no doubt for Trumpian emphasis it’s better if he was sacked. Either way, he wasn’t sacked for alleged rape, which is really the whole topic of this press conference.
Well, look, in my own experience, being a husband and a father is central to me, my human being. So I just can’t follow the question you’re putting.
Probably the most appalling mis-step in an appalling press conference. What an inane remark, the corollary clearly being that if he weren’t married with children he wouldn’t be a human being. In reality, what he’s clearly saying is “I don’t want to answer your question because it pinpoints precisely the shallow hypocrisy of my position. Next”
I hadn’t seen her account until last night. I didn’t get to see it because I had events and other things I was dealing with until late last night
Again Morrison tries for the simultaneous “I know everything” and “I know very little” appeals. By now it doesn’t matter which is true, and although “very little” is more probable he has in any case destroyed his credibility on every front. He’s claiming to be concerned for Ms. Higgins when all he’s tried to do is cast her in a bad light, he’s run as fast and hard as he could from the central issue while hiding behind a “caring parent” facade, and he’s attempted to remove men from the entire discussion, a futile and ridiculous enterprise.
I think Australians know that I’m pretty honest about these matters and I seek to deal with them as human a way as possible
Saints preserve us from an inhumane Prime Minister.
I ask my Department for advice every day and I’m in the habit of taking action when they provide that advice.
Proof of the pudding is in the eating. This one’s not just inedible, it’s poisonous.
PRIME MINISTER: I’m sure you’d all agree that what we witnessed from Caitlin was incredibly overwhelming and as a government we’ll continue to do everything we can to further the cause of the fight against Ovarian Cancer. I wanted to make a few brief remarks and happy to take questions on the events of the last 24 hours.
I said yesterday in the Parliament that we had to listen to Brittany. I have listened to Brittany. Jenny and I spoke last night, and she said to me, “You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” Jenny has a way of clarifying things, always has. And so, as I’ve reflected on that overnight, and listened to Brittany, and what she had to say, there are a couple of things here that WE NEED TO ADDRESS need to be addressed.
The first of those is it shatters me that still, in this day and age, that a young woman can find herself in the vulnerable situation that she was in. Not her doing. And we have to do more, whether it’s in this workplace, or in any other workplace in the country, to ensure that people can work safely in their place and be at their best and do what they went into that job to do. Brittany talked about it being her dream job. We are all privileged, whether it’s members of Parliament, the people who work in our offices and indeed those who work in the gallery and do what we get to do in this place. It is a privilege, and we should be able to go about that important work safely. There should not be an environment where a young woman can find herself in such a vulnerable situation. That is not OK.
The second – and I’ll address the actions after I’ve made these comments – the second is, and I must say despite what were the genuine good intentions of all those who did try to provide support to Brittany, that clearly, by what she said last night, at the end of the day, she did not feel that way. And that is not OK. Then there is the issue of the matter of the investigation and the police matter that needs to be attended to, and that has always been the view of those who have had knowledge of these matters, that that matter should proceed to that level, and it should, and of course, the police would get every cooperation and should get every cooperation. But there are issues that Brittany raised about why that may not have been progressed. Of course, we want to respect the agency, particularly of women, in these situations, to make their own choices about how to proceed. But all options must be there for them, and they must feel they’re there for them. That is incredibly important.
So there are a number of things we can do immediately, and I’ll be speaking about this in our party room today. The first of those is we must continue to address the environment of this place. Now, I believe, over the last few years, since this occurred, there have been changes and there have been improvements, but I’m not naive enough to think, and I don’t think ANY OF YOU ARE you or anyone else in this place is naive enough to think, that that is not a position of vulnerability that can still occur. Whether it’s here, or, frankly, in so many other workplaces around this country. So I hope Brittany’s call is a wake-up call for all of us from that point of view. I’ve asked Celia Hammond, the Member for Curtin, previous Vice-Chancellor of Notre Dame, who has had experience of dealing with these issues in institutional settings and offered herself to assist me with this overnight, to lead a process, working with our chief whips and our whips to work with colleagues, ministers, members, in the Government, in the Coalition parties, to identify ways that standards and expectations and practices can be further improved so that professional behaviour in this place does not involve a young woman finding herself in the situation that she found herself i,(sic) that is unacceptable. We all have a role to play in that. I do. The members of this place do. Those who work in our offices do, in senior positions. Those who work in other offices in this place, all have that responsibility. And I’m looking to Celia to provide support and advice to her colleagues and to me, working with colleagues, and of course if Anthony Albanese and his team wish to have their process or engage in that, of course we’d welcome that, and that’s an open invitation as to how that might proceed.
Secondly, in relation to the support that was provided to Brittany, and there is a good record of what all of this, and indeed, in those initial phases, Brittany had expressed her appreciation, particularly to a staff member, for the support she had provided. But clearly over time, she felt more alone in dealing with this and the trauma of this event and the way that that progressed clearly was not handled sufficiently. And so I’m going to ask Stephanie Foster, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to assist and advise me on how better those processes can work to support people when incidents of this nature arise. Now, one issue I’m going to ask her to look at, and I don’t think we should jump to a conclusion here, I think it should be well thought through, is that where there are incidents that COULD involve alleged assault, particularly alleged sexual assault, then we should consider that such a matter be immediately, by matter of process, be referred to the Department and for the Department to step in so there is an arm’s-length arrangement in terms of how the individual – in this case, Brittany – would be able to fully understand and be supported, completely outside that office, or any other office, for that matter. Because, at the end of the day, Brittany did not feel that that occurred. And that’s what matters. That’s not to reflect on the genuine efforts that I know were undertaken by Minister Reynolds and others, but at the end of the day, Brittany has said what she’s said and that’s what we have to deal with.
In relation to the police investigation, I’m advised that the videotape of that evening was provided and has been retained at the request of police and is still in the possession of Parliamentary Services, as is appropriate. There’s been a bit of commentary around that, but they are the facts and Parliamentary Services and others can give you the details on that element. But, at the end of the day, I want to make sure that any young woman working in this place is as safe as possible, just as I would like my own daughters, if they ever chose to go down that path, or in whatever workplace they were working in, that they could have that confidence of their safety and, as a father, I could have that confidence of safety.
Happy to take questions. Sam?
JOURNALIST: In relation to Brittany Higgins, you said yesterday, a spokesman for your Government said it was not appropriate that she was called to that meeting in that room in Linda Reynolds’s office. Will you now offer her an apology for that?
PRIME MINISTER: Happily. Happily. I mean, that should not have happened. And I do apologise. That shouldn’t have happened. That is one of, I suspect, many process issues that Stephanie Foster will, I hope, identify and ensure that those improvements are made.
JOURNALIST: Overnight, the Department of Parliamentary Services have given a statement to News.com confirming there was a police investigation into the decision to send in the cleaners to the Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’s office within 24 hours of this incident occurring. Now, they say that the police investigated that and because they did not know at the time it was a potential sexual assault, that no criminality was involved, but they did investigate it, but whether or not it was involved in trying to essentially conceal evidence of a crime. Are you happy, do you think there needs to be more questions asked or investigations into how Parliament dealt with this at the time?
PRIME MINISTER: I’m happy for those investigations to take place and they should be done transparently and with full cooperation. That shouldn’t lead to any assumptions about any acts that were undertaken. I mean, cleaners go through offices every morning, as people know, and at that point, at that precise point in time, as I understand it, and I’m fairly recent to these events, there was, you know, not full knowledge of what had actually occurred. So to suggest that something had been done to interfere with the environment, I don’t think that’s established either. But I’m very happy for those matters to be fully investigated.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you talk about setting up an arm’s-length process through DPS…
PRIME MINISTER: It would probably be through the Department of Finance, I would think. But yeah.
JOURNALIST: Yes. Would it still not be the case that unless there was a cultural change, where alleged victims didn’t feel they had to make a choice between their job and lodging a complaint, that even an arm’s-length process may not solve the situation?
PRIME MINISTER: That’s why the first point I made today, Phil, was ensuring that we continue to strive to have an environment in this place, in which every single person who works here has a responsibility in creating, from me down, and I accept that. We’ve made changes in how ministers’ behavioural codes are operating over the last few years. I believe that’s had a positive impact. I think there are changes to be made here as well and I would welcome that as well. So yes, I do agree, Phil, that that is clearly a contributing factor. No member of staff, and particularly a young woman in this situation, should feel even if it were not the case, as I believe it was not the case on this occasion, that her employment would ever have been threatened. After the election, and we were successful, she was employed in a new role and worked there for some years. What saddens me is that over time, and I think there were communications issues here, that she felt increasingly alone to deal with the trauma of what had occurred. And that’s where I think the ongoing supports have not been successful and as a result she found herself in the situation she has. You know, listening to her talk about how she, you know, had to go through those security gates and the reminder of… I mean, that is, I understand that, and that is tremendously upsetting. So I get it and that’s why I think understanding how that process could better work. But equally, I don’t want the situation to be such that a young woman or anyone else in that situation would feel that they’d be reluctant to come forward on something like that, if it meant triggering a whole range of things that they felt uncomfortable about. We cannot, we cannot ignore the importance of the issue of agency of women in these situations. They need the power in these situations to make the decisions that are best for them, and we clearly have to do better about that.
I’ll keep going around, Sam. I’m happy to come back to you. Yes?
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you started your prime ministership with issues over Julia Banks and Ann Sudmalis, and we saw allegations against some ministers last year on ABC’s Four Corners and now we’ve seen this claim from Brittany Higgins aired very publicly yesterday. Does the Liberal Party have a problem with women? And what are you doing to make it a comfortable place for women to be employed here and to run as members of Parliament?
PRIME MINISTER: I think I’ve already addressed that in the comments I’ve already made today. I think anyone in this place who thought these issues were specific to any one party or any one element of how this building operates I think would be being very naive. This is an issue that I think goes right across the span of all political parties, all offices, including, I suspect, even in the media. So let’s not kid ourselves here. This is a problem we all have and all must address together. Certainly I’ll be doing that as Prime Minister and leader of my own party.
JOURNALIST: When did you first know about the Brittany Higgins allegations?
PRIME MINISTER: 24 hours ago.
JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Linda Reynolds about her handling of this case? And why hasn’t she apologised for holding that meeting afterwards in the same room where the alleged assault happened?
PRIME MINISTER: I’ve just done that now and I’ve done that on behalf of myself and of the Government. Linda and I have had a conversation about this and, in fact, we discussed it as a Cabinet last night as well,
the seriousness of this and I will discuss it also with my party room today. So I don’t want there to be any doubt about particularly that point and I suspect where there are others that arise, we’ll address those as well. Sam?
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask in relation… Obviously your office was involved in managing this situation from the beginning as a security breach, as a security incident, with two staffers in there overnight. Now, the person who was the Chief of Staff in that office was seconded briefly from your office…
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s actually not right, Sam.
JOURNALIST: She’s now back in your office and after that event, Brittany Higgins says your Chief of Staff and his EA were in the office dealing with the aftermath of Fiona. Not in relation to a sexual assault, but with the issues with the office, of dealing with, you know, the security breach and so on. So given that you have at least two or three or more people in your office that were involved in this in the beginning, and certainly Linda Reynolds was aware that there was an alleged assault back in April 2019, she never told you? Do you have some sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy? Why did you not know until recently that there was an alleged sexual assault?
PRIME MINISTER: That is a very valid question and I can assure you that there is no such policy and I’m not happy about the fact that it was not brought to my attention, and I can assure you people know that. I can assure you people know that. Now, in relation to the involvement, as you suggested, of some who are now employed in my office, at the time they were employed in Minister Reynolds’s office. They were not seconded from my office. They were actually employed in that office. They came to work in my office at a later time. And the initial incident which was, to the best of our knowledge, at that point, was a security incident, was dealt with swiftly. Let’s not forget there’s an alleged perpetrator here. There’s an alleged perpetrator. And I do not want us to lose focus on the fact of the justice issue here that needs to be addressed. That this alleged perpetrator has undertaken these things and you’ve all heard the accounts, but it’s a matter for a proper investigation to deal with that. Then, ultimately, accountability rests with those who seek to perpetrate these acts.
JOURNALIST: Is there a structural issue…
PRIME MINISTER: And that person was sacked.
JOURNALIST: You said this conversation really hit home when you had it with Jenny and thought about it as a husband and a father. Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? And what happens if men don’t have a wife and children? Would you… do they reach the same compassionate conclusion?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, in my own experience, being a husband and a father is central to me, my human being. So I just can’t follow the question you’re putting.
JOURNALIST: Well, didn’t you think yesterday, as a leader of this country, that it was abhorrent? It had to take being a father?
PRIME MINISTER: And I did. And I said so yesterday. In reflecting on what she said last night, I hadn’t seen her account until last night. I didn’t get to see it because I had events and other things I was dealing with until late last night and I had the opportunity at that point to see. I had discussed it with Jenny. She had seen it and we discussed it. That’s how we deal with these things. I think Australians know that I’m pretty honest about these matters and I seek to deal with them as human a way as possible and my family helps inform that, as I suspect it does most people.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask you one on the vaccine, please?
PRIME MINISTER: I’m going to deal with that later, but yes, if you like.
JOURNALIST: What do you say to Australians who, they’re not anti-vaxxers but they’re genuinely concerned about getting the vaccine, so much so, now that they’re refusing to get it, they don’t want to get it. What do you say to them to put their mind at ease?
PRIME MINISTER: To listen to the medical advice. We have the best medical experts in the world. They are the ones who are making decisions about what is safe to take and whether it will be effective to support their own health. These are the same people that make decisions about the vaccines that we take our children to have vaccinated with. These are the same people. It is another vaccine, admittedly at a scale that we haven’t seen in this country before, but they’re the same people, the same experts, that you’ve trusted with your own children. They’re the same people you can trust when it comes to this vaccine. And they’re the people I’m trusting, both with me, my family, my mother, my mother-in-law, for their health and for their safety and all of those, particularly at the outset, those front-line workers who will be first in that process.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can I just understand your process a little better that you’ve outlined this morning? A number of women who have run into difficulties in this building, from trivial to very serious, say that departmental officials already have the scope to investigate complaints.
PRIME MINISTER: They do.
JOURNALIST: But they have no power to take action. Or recommend changes that are implemented. That is a structural flaw that goes to the way that staffers are employed in this building. Can you explain to me whether that process will not only be arm’s length from the Government but have the capacity to make concrete recommendations that are then acted upon by the people with power in the building ie. yourself and your colleagues?
PRIME MINISTER: This is what I’ll be asking Stephanie to undertake, that process, and provide me with that advice. I ask my Department for advice every day and I’m in the habit of taking action when they provide that advice. That’s why I’m asking them to do this. And I would expect them to address many of the issues you’ve just raised and I hope they do. We all want the same thing here. I want the same thing that you do. I want young women, in particular, but women, men, to be able to come and work safely in this place and do the important work we do in this place. That’s what I want. I know that’s what Australians want and I’m committed to achieving it. Thank you very much.
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* Disclaimer: this commentary is my opinion only. As the alleged rape is the subject of a criminal investigation, this article does not deal with any matters not already in the Public Domain, specifically the interview with Ms. Brittany Higgins, media reports regarding events following the alleged assault, and the text of the Prime Minister’s press conference, reproduced above.
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