COMMENT

If history is any guide, the Prime Minister's response to Brittany Higgins' shocking account of sexual assault at Parliament House will be open and shut.

He will urge her to take the matter to the police - which she did at the time - and perhaps suggest that is the beginning and the end of the matter?

But is it?

Or, do political parties owe the people that work for them - in this case a 24-year-old young woman - a greater duty of care if they are sexually assaulted at work?

For Brittany Higgins, it was the sight of the Prime Minister standing on a podium with Australian of the Year Grace Tame, a survivor of sexual assault that hardened her resolve to speak.

"I was sick to my stomach,'' she said.

"He's standing next to a woman who has campaigned for 'Let Her Speak' and yet in my mind his government was complicit in silencing me. It was a betrayal. It was a lie."

It was this photograph of Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Australian of the Year winner Grace Tame that hardened Brittany Higgins’ resolve to speak. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Martin Ollman
It was this photograph of Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Australian of the Year winner Grace Tame that hardened Brittany Higgins’ resolve to speak. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Martin Ollman

RELATED: Young staffer's alleged rape in minister's office

Nearly two years ago, it was Liberal elder Kathryn Greiner, the former wife of former NSW Premier Nick Greiner, who got to the real issue - leadership.

"If we want to bring transformative and conclusive change into the Liberal party, which we clearly need to do, then it starts with the PM," she said.

"Saying to women 'go to the police' is simply another way of shutting people up. It's not good enough."

Ms Greiner's comments followed revelations from two former Liberal staffers whose stories bear striking similarities to Ms Higgins' own story.

Liberal staffer Chelsey Potter told the story of how a Liberal colleague had pinned her down and ripped off her underpants, while Dhanya Mani, a NSW state political staffer, said a Liberal Party colleague had come to her house, tried undoing her jeans and began masturbating.

"At one point, he put his hands around my neck and started choking me,'' Ms Mani said.

Chelsey Potter who claims she was sexually assaulted by a political staffer in Canberra while working for an MP. Picture: Facebook
Chelsey Potter who claims she was sexually assaulted by a political staffer in Canberra while working for an MP. Picture: Facebook

The price for speaking out is significant.

Two years on, Ms Potter tells news.com.au she's been dubbed "a troublemaker" and "fallen off Christmas card lists".

Ms Higgins fully expects the same fate awaits her. Just as she heard colleagues bag the women who spoke out in the past, now they will whisper and background about her.

These are issues that another former Liberal Party staffer Rachelle Miller, who had a consensual extramarital affair with Education Minister Alan Tudge when he was in another portfolio, also aired publicly on the ABC's Four Corners program.

Ms Miller struggled to find a job in the aftermath. Meanwhile, Mr Tudge got promoted by the Prime Minister.

Federal member of parliament Alan Tudge arrives at the 2017 Midwinter Ball in the company of Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller who he was having an affair with.
Federal member of parliament Alan Tudge arrives at the 2017 Midwinter Ball in the company of Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller who he was having an affair with.

"These women, we all pay such a high price for speaking out,'' Potter says.

"I certainly wasn't going to make it a police matter. I didn't want my career to suffer. It suffered anyway.

"It's also just another way of making the problem go away, because politicians can say, 'that's a police matter I can't comment' and without addressing the culture.

Because this is also a story about the work hard, party hard culture that infects some political offices, often staffed by young, single people without children.

Why? Because the grinding pace of their working lives is not compatible with having a life beyond the 'Canberra bubble'.

Brittany Higgins claims she felt she had to choose between going to the police and keeping her job.
Brittany Higgins claims she felt she had to choose between going to the police and keeping her job.

Drinking to excess is sometimes a big part of how stress is managed in these environments and it can prove a toxic combination for worker's wellbeing and self-esteem.

"It's about the culture, ultimately. It's such a bubble," says Ms Potter.

"In Parliament House, it's all about power and unfortunately power and sex feel like they are intertwined.

"I don't think that should be the case but a lot of young men think that's the case.

"It's this place where young men are told they are so important and they run around with their lanyards. They mix with very high end people. I feel that breeds a culture of entitlement and that extends to women in the workplace."

Brittany Higgins on her first day at work at Parliament House
Brittany Higgins on her first day at work at Parliament House

It's also a story about the complete lack of workplace protections ministerial and political staffers have when something goes wrong, particularly with a minister.

"So where is the line? You see these people at work. You go out for a drink with them at Public. You see these people all the time. If you speak out against a culture you are very quickly removed from that group and it can be very isolating. So why would you?,'' Potter says.

Of course, this is not a story that is black and white.

The Defence Minister's staffer who handled the matter at the time insists she tried her best to help Brittany Higgins seeking advice from 1800 RESPECT on whether to go to police herself and what support to offer.

She is now working back in the Prime Minister's office and is regarded as one of the most experienced - and caring - female staffers in the Morrison Government.

Despite this, Brittany Higgins heard a different message. She believed if she returned to the Gold Coast she wouldn't get a job after the election.

She was terrified of being "a problem" for the party during the election. After the election, she moved to another office and the story was in her words "taboo."

As Ms Higgins notes there is "no HR" to complain to at Parliament House.

Brittany Higgins didn’t believe she’d get her job after the election if she returned to the Gold Coast.
Brittany Higgins didn’t believe she’d get her job after the election if she returned to the Gold Coast.

So, the question the PM needs to ask himself is does he need to do more when a woman is harassed or even sexually assaulted in the offices they toil in for long hours simply to keep him in his job?

Something more than someone sliding a crumpled employment counselling brochure across a round table for a service that you can't get an appointment with for weeks?

And, is it OK to call a formal employment meeting in the room that the woman was raped in? Because it doesn't really sound OK to me.

It's disturbing but sadly not entirely surprising to learn that the men and women who literally write the laws that govern our workplaces are so completely sh*t at this.

Do you know more about this story? You can contact: samantha.maiden@news.com.au

Originally published as PM image that made Brittany speak

Dhanya Mani says she was choked by a NSW state political staffer. Picture: Adam Yip
Dhanya Mani says she was choked by a NSW state political staffer. Picture: Adam Yip
Brittany Higgins picture with Scott Morrison at a Liberal Party event.
Brittany Higgins picture with Scott Morrison at a Liberal Party event.