I respect the extraordinary courage of former Liberal Party staffer, Brittany Higgins, to step forward and shine a light on sexual assault. No individual should have to publically lay bare the intimate, distressing and traumatic details of their alleged rape at work.
Brittany reported her alleged assault to the Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds, and key staff in the minister's parliamentary office in which Brittany worked.
The alleged incident occurred in the minister's office during the 2019 federal election. There existed political sensitivity that media reporting of the story could materially impact voters' intentions. But employers have an enforceable duty of care to ensure they provide a safe workplace for their employees. It's not enough for organisations to appear that they have provided a duty of care. No employee should feel they must choose between advancing in their dream job and reporting to police they were sexually assaulted at work.
Since Brittany bravely disclosed her alleged sexual assault to The Project's Lisa Wilkinson on February 15, further allegations have been made about the man who was a former senior ministerial advisor. A second woman has told The Australian she was allegedly raped by the same man in 2020. A third woman has alleged sexual assault by the man during the 2016 federal election campaign. A fourth woman has reportedly advised ABC's Four Corners she had made a report to police about the same male, who in 2017 allegedly reached under a table and stroked her thigh while out with colleagues in Canberra's Public Bar.
The question is not when the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, knew of Brittany's alleged rape. The critical question is why did the PM not know? On reported matters of security, criminal conduct, corruption or clandestine pork-barrelling in favour of a government's marginal electorates, it should be standard parliamentary policy and procedure that the head of a federal, state or territory government is notified.
No employee should feel they must choose between advancing in their dream job and reporting to police they were sexually assaulted.
Sexual assault is a serious crime that is recognised across federal and state legal jurisdictions. Tragically, sexual assault is omnipresent in Australia, with increased reporting of incidents to police. It exists across work, home, education and social settings. A corrosive, degenerative and perverted cancer that undermines our society. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020) reported sexual assault is a significant national health and welfare issue. Individuals can experience physical injuries, hospitalisation, long-term mental health effects and disruption to daily functioning.
Based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2016 Public Safety Survey, the institute estimated that one in six women (17 per cent or 1.6 million) and one in 25 men (4.3 per cent or 385,000) had experienced at least one sexual assault since the age of 15. It estimated that, in Australia, 1.6 per cent (148,000) of women and 0.6 per cent (57,200) of men aged over 18 had been sexually assaulted at least once in the preceding 12 months. In 2018, 18,300 sexual assaults against Australians aged over 15 were reported to police. The majority of sex offenders are male (97 per cent).
The survey found that almost nine in 10 incidents of women who experienced their most recent aggravated (non-consensual) sexual assault in the past 10 years did not contact police. It is estimated one in 10 sexual assaults reported to police will result in a criminal conviction. In my clinical experience, few people report sexual assault. The barriers to reporting are substantial.
Sexual assault survivors are often too frightened to report their assailant's (or assailants') criminal acts. Former NSW director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, advised that often there is a lack of physical and objective evidence that confirms the victim's report. "The test for the prosecution is that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction by a jury properly instructed".
Low reporting and convictions for sexual assault in Australia is a significant problem. Australia is at risk of repeating the mistakes identified in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, where alleged perpetrators went unreported to police. For decades, institutions were also found to have systematically relocated offenders to unsuspecting communities where further child sexual abuse occurred.
Taken together, organisational self-interest, self-preservation, executive privilege and the single-minded pursuit of one's vocational aspirations should never eclipse moral decency, compassion, kindness and ongoing support for any individual who reports a sexual assault in the workplace.
- For help regarding a sexual assault, call 1800 Respect 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Dr Michael Walton is a Lambton psychologist
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