“I am sorry.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologised to the victims of sexual harassment, assault and rape in Parliament, including Brittany Higgins, in a formal acknowledgement on Tuesday afternoon. 

The House of Representatives paused during the first sitting week of the year and leaders of each major political party, as well as the speaker of the house Andrew Wallace, addressed the parliament. They acknowledged the suffering of the women whose stories formed the 2021 Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, published by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

“I am sorry. We are sorry. I am sorry to Ms Higgins for the terrible things that took place here,” Morrison said.

And the place that should have been a place for safety and contribution, turned out to be a nightmare. I am sorry for far more than that. 

“[Higgins] had the courage to speak, and so here we are. We are sorry for all of these things, and in doing so, each of us take on accountability for change.For those of us who have perpetuated the bullying and violence, the light will come to those behaviours. As it must.”

It was a monumental moment after 12 months of dodging and denying by our leaders. But this should’ve happened months ago, not on the cusp of an election.

Higgins started a reckoning when she spoke out in February 2021 and alleged she had been raped in parliament by a colleague while she worked as a Liberal staffer. Her courage prompted the Jenkins report, more stories and accounts from other MPs and staffers, and nationwide protests around sexism and the treatment of women in the workplace. 

The report revealed that one in three women who has worked in parliament had experienced sexual harassment and half had experienced bullying. 

More than 1700 individuals contributed to the report, which was published in November 2021. 

After his apology, Morrison said the report provided leaders an opportunity to actually do something about parliament’s toxic workplace culture. 

“Jenkins said this is an opportunity for the leaders of our country to transform and commonwealth parliamentary workplaces to become what they already should be,” Morrison said.

“That is our task, she has set it out clearly. We must hold ourselves to the standard, all of us.”

He also said the “long-standing culture” of bullying and harassment was uncovered in the review and needed to change.

“A power imbalance over that time that has been exploited, and that exploitation, abuse and harassment has played itself out through terrible traumatic and harrowing experiences. 

“The harassment of staff, particularly female staff, as well as the harassment of female members and senators. Over many decades, the culture perpetuated bullying, abuse, harassment and in some cases even violence became normalised. This has to change, it is changing, and I believe it will change.”

Labor and Nationals leaders Anthony Albanese and Barnaby Joyce also apologised to the victims and thanked Brittany Higgins for her courage. 

“The Jenkins report catalogues in personal testimony and shocking statistics our failure to lead by example,” Albanese said. 

“It is also a demand that we act right now. We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone in this building as well as every former staff member who stepped up to share their experiences of workplace bullying and misconduct of sexual harassment and most dramatically, of sexual assault.”

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