Rape claim by former govt staff member sends shock waves through Australia’s governing party

Brittany Higgins said she was attacked after a night out drinking with colleagues.
Brittany Higgins said she was attacked after a night out drinking with colleagues.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM THE PROJECT/YOUTUBE

MELBOURNE (NYTIMES) - A former government staff member's account of being raped in Australia's Parliament building sent shock waves through the country's halls of power on Monday (Feb 15), with the governing conservative party coming under intense criticism for the way it had handled the case.

Women's rights advocates called it an extreme example of what has long been described as a culture of misogyny that has pushed several women out of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's coalition government.

The former staff member, Ms Brittany Higgins, now 26, said she was attacked nearly two years ago after a night out drinking with colleagues.

Ms Higgins, who came forward in an interview published on the news site news.com.au on Monday, had been weeks into a new job as a media adviser for the defence minister, Ms Linda Reynolds.

Ms Higgins said she had been offered a ride home by a male colleague widely regarded as a rising star within the Liberal Party.

Instead, he redirected the taxi driver to Parliament House, where, she said, he assaulted her after she had fallen asleep on a couch in the defence minister's office.

She has not publicly identified the man.

She said she had quickly informed Ms Reynolds, along with more than a dozen others, including Parliament House staff members.

In response to a phone call from The New York Times, Ms Higgins' partner relayed comments from her by e-mail.

Ms Higgins said that although she had initially pursued charges with the police, she later dropped them because of internal pressure from the party.

She said she had been made to choose between going to the police and keeping her job.

The case remains open but is not under active investigation, given that there has been no formal complaint from Ms Higgins, according to a statement from the police in the Australian Capital Territory.

The government, which called the allegations "deeply distressing", said in a statement that it "regrets in any way if Ms Higgins felt unsupported through this process."

But it maintained that she had been encouraged by Ms Reynolds to speak with the police "in order to assess the options available to her".

The defence minister did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Ms Higgins later quit her job.