While the inquiry into the Brittany Higgins allegations has been suspended, its inaction highlights something deeper.
CW: The following piece discusses sexual violence
Well, the official investigation into the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins is over, but did it even begin? Phil Gaetjens, who was leading the inquiry has said yesterday that the matter is now closed, but “…no inferences in relation to that content can be drawn from the legal advice nor my decision to suspend the inquiry.”
The inquiry has only resulted in the summoning of a 26-year-old before the ACT magistrates court in September over the alleged sexual assault of the former Morrison government staffer at parliament house. As Katharine Murphy of The Guardian summarised, “the man will face one charge of sexual intercourse without consent in relation to the alleged assault in parliament house in March 2019. His lawyer says his client ‘absolutely and unequivocally denies any form of sexual activity took place'”.
In regards to Gaetjens inferences, one could be easily drawn, in that the inquiry has produced nothing. What’s more, the inquiry already hit the headlines when the nation discovered that the investigation was paused, and Scott Morrison decided to keep that little nugget quiet.
In early February, per The Guardian, “Scott Morrison requested that Gaetjens check communications between his parliamentary staff and Higgins…because there were conflicting accounts about whether senior staff in the prime minister’s office were aware of key details of the alleged assault before Higgins went public with her story.”
In March, we were still waiting on the details of the inquiry. When asked what was taking so long, Scott Morrison told the House in Question Time: “This work is being done by the secretary of my department. It’s being done at arm’s length from me. He has not provided me with a further update about when I might expect that report, but I have no doubt the opposition will be able to ask questions of him in Senate estimates next week.”
Flash forward to the Senate estimates the following week, and we discovered that the inquiry was no longer “being undertaken”. He had in fact “paused” his inquiry nearly a fortnight ago, and what’s more, the Prime Minister already knew.
As The Conversation noted, “Gaetjens said that on March 9 the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Reece Kershaw, had told him it would be strongly advisable to hold off finalising the records of interviews with staff until the AFP could clarify whether the criminal investigation into Ms Higgins’ sexual assault allegations may traverse any issues covered by the administrative process I was undertaking’.
“That same day Gaetjens emailed the Prime Minister’s Office staff ‘to tell them that I would be not completing the documentation. At that same time, I also told the Prime Minister of that, just in case his staff asked him any questions as to what was going on.'”
Gaetjens stonewalled the rest of the Senate estimates hearing, and as Michelle Grattan opined, (Scott Morrison) “had Gaetjens appear before Senate estimates – which is highly unusual for a secretary of the prime minister’s department – to deliver, in effect, an ‘up yours’ to the senators.”
In Question Time, Morrison denied being misleading, challenging Anthony Albanese to use “other forms of the House” – in other words, try to move a motion. Albanese did, twice, and was immediately gagged by the government – twice.
As The Big Smoke’s Sue Backshall wrote in July, “…ever since the horrific allegations raised by Brittany Higgins and others came to light, we women of Australia have asked Canberra what they plan to do. We even took to the streets in March to find answers, but the only official word was that we were fortunate that we weren’t all shot. Now, with Christian Porter back in parliament (he’s currently organising the local production of the COVID vaccine) and the identity of Higgins’ alleged attacker still an open secret, the lasting effect of the Higgins allegations is that MPs will now have to attend one hour of training around sexual harassment in the workplace. Or not, the training is entirely optional.”
As Daniel Ziffer of The ABC revealed, “Parliamentarians will be ‘given the option to attend’ a one-hour face-to-face training session with office managers and chiefs of staff at Parliament House or in electorate offices. Junior staff will be given a two-hour session that may become mandatory.
“By the end of the session, managers and MPs should be able to understand ‘behaviours do or do not constitute assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment and serious and systemic bullying and harassment.
“They should also be able to understand workplace health and safety obligations as an employer and what is needed to ‘provide a safe and respectful workplace’.
“The training will use practical examples about how to prevent sexual assault, sexual harassment, and serious and systemic bullying, as well as how to support impacted people.
“The hour-long session will also detail how to ‘respond appropriately to a disclosure’ and give advice on ‘reporting options’ for incidents.”