Brittany Higgins Case Could Lead to New Misconduct Penalties for Australian Politicians

The Australian government plans to empower a new parliamentary standards commission to punish misconduct, including sexual assault, following the high-profile Brittany Higgins rape case. This move aims to improve accountability and address the culture in Parliament House.

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Brittany Higgins Case Could Lead to New Misconduct Penalties for Australian Politicians

Brittany Higgins Case Could Lead to New Misconduct Penalties for Australian Politicians

The much-delayed parliamentary standards commission in Australia could soon have the power to punish MPs, senators, staffers and others in Parliament House for serious breaches such as sexual assault, according to Minister for Women Katy Gallagher. The potential for the new disciplinary body arises in the aftermath of the Brittany Higgins rape case.

Higgins, a former Liberal staffer, accused her colleague Bruce Lehrmann of raping her inside Parliament House in 2019. Lehrmann pleaded not guilty and his trial ended with a hung jury in October 2022. Prosecutors dropped the charges, citing concerns for Higgins' mental health.

In related legal matters, Network Ten has told the Federal Court that Lehrmann should pay all of its costs for defending his failed defamation suit against presenter Lisa Wilkinson. Lehrmann had sued Wilkinson over her coverage of Higgins' rape allegation.

Meanwhile, MP Linda Reynolds has vowed to continue with a defamation suit against Higgins if Higgins persists in claiming there was a political cover-up over her rape allegation against Lehrmann.

Why this matters: The Higgins case has shone a spotlight on the culture and working conditions inside Australia's Parliament House. The proposed new disciplinary commission could bring greater accountability for misconduct by politicians and staff.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) is also conducting an internal review into the handling of the Higgins case evidence. This follows allegations that Higgins' personal text messages were leaked from the evidence brief compiled for Lehrmann's trial, which never ended up being tendered in court.

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw stated the review will determine if any officers breached professional standards or if there is a threshold for a full investigation. In the separate defamation proceedings, Federal Court Justice Michael Lee said he was "comfortably satisfied" Lehrmann had lied about his role in leaking the text messages to the media, which would be a breach of the Harman principle prohibiting using subpoenaed evidence for any other purpose.

The Higgins case has also sparked a broader debate in Australia about consent, rape myths, and the need to elevate expert evidence and victim experience in public discussions about sexual assault. As Higgins said in a recent interview, "I think we have a long way to go in this country in terms of responding to sexual violence in an appropriate way."

Key Takeaways

  • Australia may empower a new commission to punish MPs for misconduct like sexual assault.
  • Higgins accused a former colleague of raping her in Parliament, but charges were dropped.
  • Lehrmann sued a TV presenter over coverage of the case, but the suit was dismissed.
  • AFP reviewing handling of Higgins case evidence, including alleged leaks of her texts.
  • Higgins' case sparks debate on consent, rape myths, and elevating victim experiences.