Brittany Higgins to be briefed ahead of public on review of parliament workplace culture

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The Australian Human Rights Commission has agreed to brief the former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins before it hands over the much-anticipated review into whether parliament house has a toxic workplace culture to the Morrison government.

Guardian Australia understands the commission initially flagged Higgins would not be briefed until the final report was made public by tabling in parliament. This is despite the former Coalition adviser being the catalyst for the investigation.

But that position has shifted in recent days.

The briefing is imminent, because the report is due to be handed to the Morrison government on 30 November.

The sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins was engaged by the government back in March to consider what about parliamentary culture might increase risk factors for political staff and other participants.

Jenkins was asked to examine any legislative, cultural, structural or other barriers to reporting alleged incidents in parliamentary workplaces, and also consider the current response and reporting mechanisms in parliamentary workplaces.

The review will consider the current Members of parliament Staff Act – the legislation under which political staffers are employed – and “assess the extent to which current legislation, policies, processes and practices promote or impede safe and respectful workplaces”.

The sex discrimination commissioner’s review process was triggered when Higgins alleged she was raped in a ministerial office in March 2019.

The man accused of raping Higgins will stand trial in June. Bruce Lehrmann is pleading not guilty to the charge and denies that any form of sexual activity took place.

The Australian Capital Territory supreme court earlier this month extended Lehrmann’s bail until a criminal case conference in February, and set a tentative date of 6 June for a trial expected to last three to four weeks.

Lehrmann is facing one charge of sexual intercourse without consent in relation to the alleged assault in the Parliament House office of the former defence industry minister Linda Reynolds in the early hours of 23 March 2019.

Higgins’ allegation has triggered multiple investigatory processes, including an inquiry by the prime minister’s chief of staff John Kunkel into whether or not the media office engaged in negative backgrounding after the assault allegation was first revealed by news.com.au

The Kunkel investigation was triggered by a formal complaint by Higgins. He ultimately declined to make a finding that the prime minister’s office briefed negatively against Higgins’ partner, citing a lack of first-hand evidence and the seriousness of the allegation.

Higgins was distressed when the government made that report public without briefing her first on the findings as a courtesy.

Guardian Australia asked the AHRC whether it intended to brief Higgins ahead of the report being made public.

A spokesperson for the commission did not directly answer the question, but said: “Throughout the review process, the wellbeing of participants and stakeholders has been our highest priority”.

“We will continue to follow trauma-informed practices in all our communications and processes as we prepare to deliver the final report. Until the final report is tabled and made public, we won’t be commenting publicly on any of those processes”.

The final report is much anticipated among staffers who have made complaints. In a progress report on the review made public in July, the commission said it had conducted 222 interviews across the country, with further 125 people registering for an interview, “including 12 current or former commonwealth parliamentarians”.

As at 14 July 2021, the commission had received 124 submissions.

The ARHC said it had engaged Roy Morgan Research to administer an online survey to investigate the current prevalence and nature of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces, and conduct targeted focus groups from late July 2021.

The focus groups were face-to-face sessions scheduled to reach people disinclined to make a formal submission.

* Disclosure: Katharine Murphy was interviewed during the AHRC inquiry.

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