Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster will review processes for workplace complaints at Parliament House in response to allegations that a former ministerial staffer was sexually assaulted by a colleague in the office of then-defence industry minister Linda Reynolds in 2019.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the appointment at a press conference on Tuesday morning, describing the incident as a “wake-up call”.
“I believe over the last few years, since this occurred, there have been changes and there have been improvements [to the workplace culture],” he said.
“But I’m not naive enough to think — and I don’t think any of you are, 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.”
Curtin MP and former university vice chancellor Celia Hammond has been tasked with working with party whips and MPs to protect staff and improve workplace culture, and an automatic reporting obligation to department officials will also be established.
Ex Morrison government staffer Brittany Higgins has alleged that she was sexually assaulted in Reynolds’ office after a night out with colleagues in March 2019. The allegations were first reported by news.com.au on Monday.
Higgins told the publication that at the time she had felt forced to choose between reporting the incident to the police or keeping her job. She has since resigned.
Higgins reportedly plans to reinstate the police complaint, and will also file a formal complaint with the Department of Finance.
Labor MP Peta Murphy on Monday called for an independent review to be conducted “to see how wide and deep the problem is” at Parliament House, and to establish an independent office to provide advice and counselling.
“We can’t continue to tolerate a workplace which too often allows gendered misuse of power to seemingly go unpunished, or worse, where the victim is the one who experiences damage to their careers, their reputations, their health,” she told Parliament.
Every single person who comes into Parliament House has the right to a safe workplace and a positive culture.
Systemic and cultural failings in politics and parliament must be addressed.
— Peta Murphy MP (@petajan) February 15, 2021