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Former Liberal minister attacks 'secret men's business' after cabinet minister accused of historical rape

Melissa Davey and Paul Karp
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Former Liberal minister Dr Sharman Stone has attacked a broader culture of parliamentary sexism and misogyny after the ABC revealed on Friday that a letter had been sent to the prime minister and police alleging a federal cabinet minister raped a woman before he entered parliament.

The ABC’s Four Corners reported the letter included allegations from a now-deceased woman alleging she was raped in 1988. The letter urged prime minister Scott Morrison to establish an independent investigation into the alleged sexual assault. The letter was forwarded to police after also being sent to opposition Labor leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, and the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

NSW police confirmed the alleged victim contacted the child abuse and sex crimes squad in February 2020 about the alleged assault. The woman died a few months later.

Related: Cabinet minister accused of historical rape in letter sent to Australian prime minister

Stone told ABC’s Radio National that: “Women were considered shrill and hysterical if they raised their voices, or if they shed a tear they were weak”.

She said a group of men in parliament who called themselves the “swinging dicks” blocked Liberal MP Julie Bishop’s leadership aspirations.

“It was a very gendered thing obviously when you call yourself that, and you’re all men in the group,” she said. Guardian Australia has contacted Bishop for comment.

Little had changed since she left parliament four years ago, Stone said. Stone told the ABC that when she did she completed an exit survey for departing politicians. She said she knew answers from others had highlighted “the sexism, the concern about bullying, the concern about the lack of work-life balance”.

“This whole secret men’s business has to stop,” she said. “It has to be about fairness, justice, equity.”

In a statement to her solicitor, the now deceased woman who is the subject of the letter to Morrison said: “All I really want, in the end, is for this to have been reported to the NSW Police Force and to know that a copy of this document, and a transcript of any interview they might do with me, is in their archives.

“If this story does become public knowledge, I hope that it will encourage other women to come forward.”

Related: Brittany Higgins plans to restart police complaint over alleged rape in Australian parliament office

Police can not commence a criminal investigation into the politician because the woman’s death means the allegation cannot be tested. Close friends of the woman who knew about the alleged sexual assault have been advocating for the woman on her behalf since her death. A friend of the woman confirmed to Guardian Australia that she took her own life in July. The assault allegedly occurred in the 1980s, when the woman was a university student.

The ABC’s Louise Milligan, who broke the story, reported that the woman had also written in 2019 to former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull about the rape, and that Turnbull informed South Australia police about the allegation after her death.

The allegation follows numerous inquiries being announced by the prime minister into workplace culture in politics, after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped by a colleague in federal minister Linda Reynolds’ office in March 2019.

Higgins released a statement on 19 February confirming she was making a formal complaint about the alleged rape. She said it had occurred “in what should be the safest building in Australia”. The allegation has also raised questions about which senior members of parliament knew about the allegation and what they did – or failed to do – in response.

On Friday night, federal MP Nicolle Flint quit the Liberal party without explanation, but has previously detailed the significant issues she has faced with sexism, including having the words “skank” and “prostitute” graffitied on her campaign office. She has previously sought police protection from a stalker who followed her campaigning and repeatedly attacked her on social media.

On Saturday, Labor MP Ged Kearney wished Flint “good luck,” and said she had spoken to her own staff about the allegations which had emerged recently.

“I think everybody has been talking about this,” Kearney said. “I have been particularly speaking to the young women that I work with, the young staffers, and they are shocked but sadly they totally understand why somebody would perhaps not speak up.

“They very much understand the situation you might feel yourself in about you having to choose between your career and speaking up about any situation. We’ve been having these difficult conversations, but I’d just like to say that the women have been very brave.

“We are now talking more particularly within the Labor party about structural reform, about power sharing.”

Asked on the ABC on Saturday about whether there needed to be an investigation launched into the latest rape allegation, Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent said: “Well, it’s already been referred to the federal police.

“This is very distressing, not only for the people within the parliamentary quadrangle but also for women across Australia.

“I was speaking to a friend last night and she said that she’d had a terrible two weeks because she was reliving her own trauma of her past, and that would be happening to a number of people today. Certainly they are not alone, they shouldn’t be alone in this situation.”

He added that the South Australian coroner was examining the woman’s death.

“This is a time for truth telling,” he said.

He said he had no knowledge of any cover-up within the Liberal party.