When Peter van Onselen told listeners of ABC's Radio National on Thursday morning that the Prime Minister's office was backgrounding against Brittany Higgins' partner, I just started shouting.
The story so far. Brittany Higgins says she was raped by a Liberal staffer in 2019 on the couch in Linda Reynolds' office. She received next to no support from Reynolds or any other senior Liberal person. She was denied access to any evidence about the assault, including CCTV footage of her entry into Parliament House. By her account, she was basically told to keep schtum or lose her "dream job". On Thursday she asked the Prime Minister's office to stop attacking her loved ones. How completely awful that this young woman is forced to beg. Hasn't the Liberal Party already harmed her enough?
Why is no one taking responsibility? Why was her alleged attacker allowed to disappear without any real consequences? Is the Liberal Party running a protection racket for rapists, abusers and harassers? Why aren't there proper protections for staffers? There are so many questions about who knew what and when (turns out a lot) and no real answers from this government. What happened to Brittany Higgins is the next episode in a long line of abuse at the hands of powerful Liberal men. They get off and women continue to be victims, forced to pander to those in power.
On Thursday afternoon, the Prime Minister warned Labor it shouldn't pretend that sexual assault and harassment are confined to the Liberal Party. Funny he should say that. Labor women identify two men about whom there are stories - it would be good if the Labor Party made public how it deals with them and the women they hurt.
Since the news emerged on Monday the utter utter uselessness, callousness, of the Liberal Party's response has astonished me. What it has done to Brittany Higgins is not only physical violence, it is also emotional and mental abuse of the very highest order. Control. Deny. Demean. Degrade. And makes it nigh impossible for Higgins to work in the sector again. Oooh aah, lookie lookie, here comes the woman Scott Morrison threw under a bus. So many of those who have spoken out about harassment and abuse lose out. How extraordinary is their continued bravery?
This is the way the Morrison government operates. I now look at the images of Scott Morrison standing next to Australian of the Year Grace Tame and feel ill. Tame, as I understand it, was originally nominated in the Young Australian of the Year then moved into the main category; and at that moment of the award Morrison, and by extension his government, benefited from standing alongside this brave young woman. I wonder if anyone in his office thought about that.
Brittany Higgins made an excellent political decision when she decided to share her story with news.com.au's Samantha Maiden and Lisa Wilkinson of Channel Ten's The Project. Maiden and Wilkinson went to the PMO last Friday at 2.30pm. A press release finally arrived late Sunday night to answer their questions, which had been directed at Scott Morrison, Linda Reynolds, Fiona Brown (formerly in Reynolds' office and now in Morrison's office but seemingly unable to take information from one office to the next) and Yaron Finkelstein, Morrison's principal private secretary, late on Sunday.
Just remember what happened to the women who spoke out on the Four Corners episode Inside the Canberra Bubble? And remember what happened to both Four Corners and reporter Louise Milligan, courtesy of the government? And what happened to the ABC? Paul Fletcher, the Communications Minister, wrote to the ABC's chair Ita Buttrose, hounding, hectoring. That was in December. The utter shamelessness astounds me now.
Among other questions in the letter, Fletcher says the ABC chose to run its story in the face of specific denials. Fletcher, in my view, threatened our public broadcaster by reminding Ita that the ABC is provided with public resources to do its job. [In fact, he said very substantial public resources. Not on the Coalition's watch.]
He got one thing right: The ABC's news service is "trusted, respected and important. But with that comes high standards ... what I want to be satisfied of ... [is] that it's accurate and impartial according to the recognised status of objective journalism."
Louise Milligan's story turned out to be beautifully accurate - although, we now know, two pimples on an elephant's bum.
Since the story about Brittany Higgins broke, we have had a parade of three different reviews and clear evidence that assorted politicians and prime ministerial staffers don't have the gonads to tell the truth about what they knew and when.
In the meantime, Liberal women have nowhere to turn except each other - and they don't have the extraordinary networks of Labor women. Despite the efforts of women from across the spectrum of the party, from Liberal senator Sue Boyce, who has since retired, at one end, to Peta Credlin at the other, nothing changes.
There is, or was, an informal WhatsApp group for Liberal women. Dhanya Mani, who survived an alleged sexual assault at the hands of another Liberal staffer, established a network, Changing Our Headline, and this week Chelsey Potter, another survivor of an alleged assault at the hands of a Liberal Party staffer and still loyal to the Liberals, says she has been speaking to other women for both support and advocacy. But there are no formal networks for women, either politicians or staffers.
For too long, the party has ignored the women within who have demanded change. Is it that the ideological position of the Liberal Party is about individualism? That can't work in this setting. These women need urgent - urgent - help. Liberal women need collective action.
I urge the women in the Liberal Party to fix the system which will fix their men. The party won't change until you force change. I am sorry to make you responsible for fixing the hideous plight you find yourselves in, but I cannot see another way forward.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.