Brittany Higgins had to quit her job as a Liberal staffer when she made the decision to publicly air information about how her alleged rape in a minister’s parliamentary office in 2019 was handled, but she still wants women with an interest in politics to pursue the career she was once so passionate about.
“There definitely needs to be more young women in politics. It was the most fulfilling job I ever had. I loved it,” Higgins told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
“I would encourage every woman who was interested in policy or national debate to get involved.”
When asked about what needed to change to improve Australian politics, Higgins said there was much to be desired when it came to properly inducting new staffers. She also noted that most new starters, least of all the wider public, knew how much power inexperienced political advisors wielded in Australian democracy.
“The public don’t realise the role of advisors that they play in politics, and it’s a really pivotal role. It’s a very tight-knit team of about 12 people, and on average, they all kind of tend to be under the age of 40,” Higgins said.
“I was personally shocked [to learn] when, for example, the adviser who runs our F35 programme, which is our jets, has never been in the military, and is still under the age of 30.”
Higgins said that in addition to the phenomenon of inexperienced political advisors, there was an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ dynamic between staffers and public servants. In her view, this was ‘fundamentally problematic’ for the way the federal government was run and how the policies shaping Australia were made and implemented.
“There needs to be more of an induction training [for staffers], and more of a cohesive relationship with the public service, instead of this kind of two-tiered system, where it goes: ministerial staffer, public servants,” Higgins said.
“I think it needs reform.”
Higgins also acknowledged another former Liberal staffer in the audience – Rachelle Miller – who she said was openly shamed by others in the workplace for her experience.
Miller was featured in an ABC news program in 2021, claiming that she was involved in a secret consensual relationship with Liberal frontbencher Alan Tudge that evolved into an emotionally abusive and controlling relationship.
Minister Tudge has strenuously denied Millers’ claims the relationship was abusive, and stood aside pending an inquiry intended to investigate the affair. But in January it was revealed the report would not be finalised, leading Miller to describe the initiative as a rushed political fix that would make no practical difference.
Higgins told the Press Club she was spurred by Miller’s story and that of other women who served as parliamentary staff to share her own.
“People in [Senator Michaela] Cash’s office spoke quite freely about the Rachelle Miller [case], and it was very disparaging,” Higgins said.
“It was this idea that [Miller] was a disgruntled staffer and [there] was this very negative connotation [about] this woman who just couldn’t hack it, and I saw so much of myself in her story and in her lived experience.”
The women’s stories making headlines last year were couched by people in parliament in terms Higgins said were about ‘letting down the team’, and she railed against the ‘frenetic gossip’ that was re-traumatising in respect to her own alleged rape.
I reflect on question @PressClubAust “what can we do about the state of politics?” The answer was all around us; empower women to speak. The power of @TamePunk @BrittHiggins_ voices reverberated up through the halls of Parliament & shook the foundations of the powerful. #auspol
— Rachelle Miller (@rachellejmiller) February 9, 2022
Gender quotas would make a significant difference to the culture of the Liberal party, Higgins told the Press Club; however, she acknowledged the term was considered a ‘dirty word’ by party members.
“I think there’s an obsession on merit-based selection [in the Liberal party] to the point where it’s sort of detrimental and counterintuitive, and we’re shutting out women from the conversation,” she said.
“I don’t know how you can ever rectify that, it’s just so ingrained.”
Higgins said she was hopeful parliament house would become a safer workplace, in part because of the work being undertaken now the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ ‘Set the Standard’ report had been accepted by the government, and because it was clear the next generation of staffers coming through the ranks simply would not tolerate a culture of silence any longer.
“I’ve been really buoyed by the support of women, and conversations that I’ve had across the board,” Higgins said.
“Whether it’s women in the gallery, women who used to be staffers, women who came before me, women who occupied positions of power but didn’t feel like they were able to speak out or call out this issue because they felt like they were minimising their position by bringing up their gender in some way.
“We’ve kind of got a new wave of women who are just not copping it. And […] to have people stand behind you and go, ‘No, this isn’t okay’ and ‘Now it’s the time, let’s band together’, I think that’s been a really powerful thing,” she said.
Higgins shared the stage with the 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, who also spoke about her reflections on being an advocate for child sex abuse survivors.