Australian political leaders apologize to staff for abuses

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, rear, listens to Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce speaking to a statement of acknowledgment of harassment in the workplace of Commonwealth Parliament by the Speaker in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Australian political leaders on Tuesday apologized to staffers who have endured decades of bullying, harassment and sexual assault inside Parliamentary House and other government offices. (Lukas Coch/AAP Image via AP) (Lukas Coch)

CANBERRA – Australian political leaders apologized to staffers who have endured decades of bullying, harassment and sexual assault inside Parliamentary House and other government offices.

The presiding officers of the House of Representatives and Senate delivered the apology Tuesday on behalf of a cross-section of parties as part of a statement acknowledging a toxic workplace culture.

That culture was exposed by Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins' investigation.

The investigation was triggered by former government staffer Brittany Higgins, who went public a year ago with her allegation that she had been raped by a more senior colleague in a minister’s Parliament House office weeks before the 2019 election.

Higgins said she felt she had to make a choice between reporting her allegations to police or continuing her career. She quit her government job in January last year and reported her allegation to police.

Higgins was one of seven women who were given exemptions from a pandemic ban on viewers sitting in the public gallery of the House.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked Higgins for the courage she had shown in making her allegations.

“I am sorry. We are sorry. I’m sorry to Ms. Higgins for the terrible things that took place here,” Morrison told Parliament.

“The place that should have been a place of safety and contribution turned out to be a nightmare. But I’m sorry for far more than that. For all of those who came before Ms. Higgins and endured the same, but she had the courage to speak, and so here we are,” Morrison added.

The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Higgins has chosen to identify herself in the media.

More than 1,700 people made contributions to Jenkins’ report, including past and present staffers.

Her report found 37% of people currently in parliamentary workplaces had experienced bullying and 33% had experienced sexual harassment.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told Parliament he joined in the apology and in “acknowledging that we will do better.”

Revelations in 2018 that Joyce was expecting a baby with former press secretary Vikki Campion led to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull banning his ministers from having sex with staff. Morrison has maintained the ban.

Joyce in 2018 was married with four children. He has since married Campion with whom he has had two children.

Former government staffer Rachelle Miller, who accused Education Minister Alan Tudge of workplace bullying and intimidation during their consensual sexual relationship, was among the women allowed in the House to hear the apology.

Tudge denies he was ever abusive during his extramarital affair with his former press secretary, but stepped aside from his ministry in December while a government department investigates her formal complaint.

“It was quite emotional,” Miller told Network 10 television of the apology.

“For me, it was a real vindication. I’ve been speaking about poor behavior in Parliament House for quite some time and it has felt like those claims have been ignored,” Miller added.

Miller accepted a job in the public sector in 2018 and her affair predated the ban on ministers having sex with staff.

House Speaker Andrew Wallace told Parliament action was already being taken to improve the workplace culture.

Last year, an independent complaints process was established. Lawmakers and staff had also undergone professional workplace training, Wallace said.

Higgins’ former colleague Bruce Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent and is scheduled to stand trial in a Canberra court in June.