Scott Morrison has said “sorry” to Brittany Higgins during a parliamentary acknowledgement of victims of bullying, harassment and sexual assaults in the parliamentary workplace.
“I’m sorry to Ms Higgins for the terrible things that took place here,” he told parliament.
“The place that should have been a place for safety and contribution, turned out to be a nightmare.”
He said he was also sorry for those who had endured similar things before her in parliament house.
But Higgins had 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”.
The acknowledgement, made on behalf of a cross-party taskforce and reflecting the parliament, was read to both houses by their presiding officers.
In the House of Representatives, opposition leader Anthony Albanese, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Greens leader Adam Bandt spoke, as did Zali Steggall, member of Warringah on behalf of the crossbenchers.
The statement said: “We acknowledge the unacceptable history of workplace bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces”. Such behaviour was unacceptable and wrong, “and we say sorry”.
Higgins watched from the gallery, one of a handful of activists and advocates. Her partner David Sharaz tweeted the women were “last minute invites”. Parliament house is currently closed to the public.
Former Australian of the Year Grace Tame, who was not present in the chamber, tweeted: “How about some proactive, preventative measures and not just these performative, last-minute bandaid electioneering stunts?”
Morrison said the review into parliament house culture by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins had found “generations of culture, in this place and in the building before it, of bullying and harassment”.
“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.”
This had to change and was changing, Morrison said.
Albanese also paid special tribute to Higgins and her courage.
“You have torn through a silence that has acted as the life support system for the most odious of status quos,” he said.
Albanese said to everyone who took part in the Jenkins review that their action “took a level of courage that you should never have needed to show. But you did, and we thank you for it.
"We also acknowledge everyone who has experienced misconduct but could not take part. Indeed, there are many who are not ready to speak and perhaps never will be.
"I hope that you can take some heart from knowing that this very institution that failed you is at last acknowledging your hurt. Most importantly, we are sorry. On behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I am sorry.”
“We are committing to change.”
Albanese said Higgins, Tame and others had “found the strength to lift the weight of their own experience and hold it high until no one could look away”.
Higgins and Tame will make a joint appearance at the National Press Club on Wednesday.