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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Two women ended up in tears in the Senate this week, as the Higgins imbroglio exploded yet again and in the process claimed a scalp.

But the scalp wasn’t that of Finance Minister Katy Gallagher, who was targeted by the Liberals.

Instead it was one of the Liberals’ own, David Van, who was banished from the Liberal party room by Peter Dutton, after allegations from crossbencher Lidia Thorpe that the Victorian senator had sexually assaulted her, a claim he strongly denied.

The Liberals knew their pursuit of Gallagher for allegedly misleading parliament over her knowledge of the Brittany Higgins matter would carry some political risk. But they could never have imagined they’d be damaged in such a dramatic fashion, ceding one of their senators to the crossbench.

Federal politics, the tone of which has been better than in the last parliamentary term, once again descended into a toxic mire.

Van’s spectacular fall began with Thorpe (formerly with the Greens) on Wednesday shouting interjections when he was speaking about Labor’s attacks on Liberal women over the Higgins issue, and parliamentary standards. She alleged he’d “harassed” and “sexually assaulted” her, which he immediately rejected.

In a broader set of allegations on Thursday, in which she didn’t specifically name Van, a tearful Thorpe said: “I experienced sexual comments, and was inappropriately propositioned by powerful men. One man followed me and cornered me in a stairwell.

“There are different understandings of what amounts to sexual assault. What I experienced was being followed, aggressively propositioned and inappropriately touched. I was afraid to walk out of the office door. I would open the door slightly and check the coast was clear before stepping out,” she said.

“To me it was sexual assault, and the [Morrison] government at the time recognised it as such,” she said, because it immediately moved the person’s office.

Between late Wednesday and Thursday morning, other allegations about Van came to Dutton, with former Liberal senator Amanda Stoker confirming to him that Van had groped her.

Stoker later publicly recounted how “in November 2020 Senator Van inappropriately touched me at an informal social gathering in a parliamentary office. He did so by squeezing my bottom twice. By its nature and by its repetition, it was not accidental. That action was not appropriate. It was unprofessional and uninvited.” Van subsequently apologised.

Even if it hadn’t inadvertently blown itself up, the Coalition was always going to struggle with its attack on Gallagher. The minister, with caucus – in Anthony Albanese’s words – “1000%” behind her, could simply stare down her interrogators, although that meant enduring a good deal of heat.

Read more:
Word from The Hill: Coalition attacks on Katy Gallagher, Voice losing traction, future fund holdout

Gallagher’s 2021 claim, at a Senate estimates hearing, that she had no prior knowledge of Higgins’ allegation she was raped, was wrong, and therefore misled parliament.

Indeed, Gallagher had admitted privately to Liberal then-minister Linda Reynolds on that same night that she had some prior knowledge. This week she refused to be drawn on details of her interactions around receiving this information, leaving the opposition empty-handed. She did say – a crucial point – that she hadn’t passed on the information, obtained from Higgins and her partner David Sharaz, to Albanese or Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong.

Labor has been able to deploy effectively the argument that by revisiting the Higgins issue the Liberals will discourage women coming forward with allegations they have been assaulted. Albanese said: “My concern here is that we know that about 13% of sexual assault victims actually take action, go forward to police. And I’m worried that the focus that is going on at the moment will have a triggering effect and will deter people from coming forward.”

The debate also turned to the ethics of the disclosure of previously private communications, most notably the leaked text messages between Sharaz and Higgins.

This disclosure – involving court material – was widely condemned, and the Liberals struggled to win their argument that however the material became public, they were perfectly justified in dealing with the content. The opposition maintained it was pursuing accountability, but that was blurred by the counter argument about Higgins’ right of privacy.

The latest round of the Higgins issue has also been entangled in what we can call the media wars. The disclosure of the texts and other material has been spearheaded by The Australian, which has given massive coverage to changing the narrative of the Higgins story, in a direction that is less favourable to her. Some other sections of the media were not keen to follow up The Australian’s stories.

While Gallagher’s survival was always guaranteed, the attacks have taken their toll. By Thursday she was teary, lamenting that the work done on having women treated better and encouraging them to come forward when something happened to them had been set back.

She also conceded: “I am sorry Senator Reynolds is clearly upset about what happened to her. I am sorry about that. And I told her that.

“But I am also very sorry for Brittany Higgins, I’m sorry documents about her personal life have been leaked, I’m sorry a confidential draft claim for compensation [for Higgins] found its way onto the front pages of a national newspaper.”

Read more:
View from The Hill: Brittany Higgins story continues its damaging trail, with no end in sight

The Higgins story has a cast of women. Not just the young woman, a former Liberal staffer, who made the rape allegation. Women were on the front line of the political battle around that story: in 2021 then-ministers Reynolds and Michaelia Cash and Labor spear carriers Wong, Gallagher and then-senator Kristina Keneally.

In the media, women broke the story: Sam Maiden (News Corp) and Lisa Wilkinson (Ten). Janet Albrechtsen (The Australian) has led the counter-narrative.

The separate events that took centre stage this week regarding Gallagher and Van all happened some years ago. In the wake of the damning 2021 Jenkins report on behaviour in parliament house, that workplace has seen reforms, with new independent processes for providing support and handling complaints. People report conduct has improved.

Regardless of this, many members of the public, hearing the news reports of this week, will conclude little has changed. And some voters might think politicians should be talking less about their workplace and more about the issues confronting those in the world outside.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Grattan on Friday: Liberals come a cropper when they try to dig afresh into the Brittany Higgins story –