Allegations of historical sexual assault in parliament will not be investigated

Brittany Higgins will find out soon whether her sexual assault complaint will be prosecuted.

Since former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins made serious sexual assault allegations against a former colleague earlier this year, the federal government has vowed to make changes.

As part of those changes, an independent body is being set up to deal with sexual assault and other sexual misconduct allegations, to make victims feel more comfortable and safe coming forward.

But there’s one problem: the independent committee won’t investigate historical complaints.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham confirmed that the body was set up to provide now and into the future “a model that actually enables people to have confidence that their complaints can be heard and investigated,” but he added that the committee is “unlikely to go back through history indefinitely”.

This is a matter of concern to many because study after study has shown that the psychological impact of sexual abuse manifests very differently in victims and it can take some people years to come to terms with what happened and gather the strength to come forward.

Higgins and several other women who have come forward each told a similar story of a misogynistic culture, “victim blaming”, a lack of support for complainants and cover-ups within Parliament House.

By not investigating historical complaints the new committee could be denying some victims, who have felt that their allegations would fall on deaf ears, the opportunity to have their complaints heard based on a timeframe or a deadline.

There are calls for the committee to at least encourage reporting, so that incidents can be recorded.

For many though, the establishment of the committee is a positive announcement that something is finally emerging from the collection of internal inquiries launched by Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this year in response to escalating public outrage over his response to the allegations made by Higgins and others.

It has to be said, though, that much-needed change appears to be very slow in coming.

The Foster review, conducted by deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Stephanie Foster, found that the “serious incident” systems that encompass assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment and systemic bullying or harassment in use in parliamentary offices was deficient in three critical areas.

The review also counted 76 complaints made by employees or members of parliament in less than four years. Five of these complaints related to sexual harassment.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP), on the other hand, recently told a Senate inquiry that 19 allegations of misconduct involving parliamentarians, their staff or “official establishments” had been reported to them since Higgins went public earlier this year.

Celia Hammond’s review into Liberal party workplace culture was dumped early on, and “wrapped up” into a broader review of workplace culture within Parliament House.

The Jenkins review, undertaken by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, is unlikely to be completed until the end of the year.

The Gaetjens review, started by the secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department Philip Gaetjens in February, still has an unclear reporting deadline.

It has been heavily criticised for taking more than 100 days to determine “who knew what and when” about Higgin’s sexual assault allegation. 

Morrison insisted that both he and his office were unaware of the rape allegation until February, even though several senior figures in the government, such as former defence minister Linda Reynolds, were aware of Higgins’ account of the incident.

The Gaetjens review was put on hold for several weeks at the behest of the AFP, who were concerned that it could overlap with its criminal investigation into the incident. But the inquiry has since received the go-ahead to resume although, even when it is finalised, there is no guarantee the report will be made public.

The AFP Commissioner sent a letter to the PM in the weeks after Higgins made her allegations public stating that those in positions of power in Canberra are not a “law unto themselves” and that any “failure to report alleged criminal behaviour … or choosing to communicate or disseminate allegations via other means, such as through the media or third parties, risks prejudicing any subsequent police investigation”.

Higgins will find out within the coming weeks whether or not her sexual assault complaint will be prosecuted.

The AFP has confirmed that it is close to handing a brief of evidence to the ACT Department of Public Prosecutions, which will then decide whether charges will be laid against the man Higgins has accused of sexually assaulting her in March last year.

[Reprinted from Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]