The Parliament House sexual assault allegations have brought Canberra’s ‘culture of silence’ into the spotlight.
The Parliament House rape allegations have exposed Canberra’s culture of silence.
It’s a sad fact, but true – to be taken seriously when reporting sexual misconduct, ‘safety in numbers’ counts. If you’re going to break your silence and accuse someone of sexual assault, particularly in the absence of physical evidence, you best not be the only one. Having multiple accusers is perhaps the only safeguard to dampen the inevitable victim blaming and character assassination that ensues from a public allegation.
When it comes to the allegations of sexual misconduct made against a former Liberal Party staffer, the numbers have grown. They began with former ministerial media adviser Brittany Higgins, who alleged she was raped by the man in the office of the then-defence industry minister Linda Reynolds in 2019.
At the time of writing, three other women have since come forward with allegations of sexual impropriety against the same man.
But the reluctance of these women to come forward before now demonstrates there has been a form of ‘safety in numbers’ for the accused, too – cocooned by the culture that has been created in the male-dominated field of politics. “There is a strange culture of silence in the parties,” Higgins told Network Ten. “The idea of speaking out on these sorts of issues, especially around an [election] campaign, is just like letting the team down, you are not a team player.”
Three years on from when #MeToo first gained momentum, the Parliament House story has some all-too-familiar parallels with the scandal that first launched the movement. When the truth regarding Harvey Weinstein’s treatment of women was exposed in 2017, sceptics questioned what had taken his accusers so long to speak out. Among the many reasons why they weren’t comfortable coming forward was power imbalance. As noted by Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, lead prosecutor in Weinstein’s New York rape trial, the movie mogul “held the dreams of many people in his hand”.
Like many of Weinstein’s accusers, Higgins had just landed her ‘dream job’ when the abuse allegedly took place. Higgins went to the police following the alleged assault but then chose not to proceed with the complaint over fears she would lose her job. “I realised my job was on the line,” she told Network Ten. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice.” Now, she is laying a formal complaint to trigger a police investigation into the alleged rape. In calling for a review into the conditions under which ministerial and parliamentary staff are employed, Higgins argued the need for “genuine cultural change”. “Too often, a toxic workplace culture can emerge that enables inappropriate conduct and this is exacerbated by the disparity in the power dynamics,” she said.
Higgins may not have allegedly fallen victim to a powerful perpetrator like Weinstein’s victims did, but how Higgins’ accusation was handled suggests she may have fallen victim to a system that values power and reputation above all else.