“I never wanted to be known for the worst thing that happened to me”

Federal parliament is reeling from allegations of rape and sexual assault, with more women making statements about their own experiences in the wake of ex-staffer Brittany Higgins’ rape accusation against a former Liberal colleague. Chelsey Potter came forward with her own story in 2019 – today she reveals what happened next.

Feb 22, 2021, updated Feb 22, 2021
Chelsey Potter. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Chelsey Potter. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

On my last day in the office, he sent me flowers.

Gerberas with cellophane.

A thoughtful surprise. A kind gesture from a long-time friend and political colleague.

I left them to die on that desk.

Almost a year earlier, that same friend and colleague – my generous gift-giver – sexually assaulted me. In the middle of a cold Canberra sitting night, he pinned me down and removed my underwear.

And he only stopped when I started to scream.

Even today, I still don’t know what those flowers meant.

Potentially, they were a cheap gratuity for my silence, thus sparing his promising career and up-and-coming status. Perhaps a celebration of my resignation and liberation from a constant, uncomfortable reminder of what he did.

Or, ultimately, maybe they represented the words he never uttered: I’m sorry.

Last week, we read the horrific details of Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape inside Parliament House nearly two years ago. We have also seen the resultant circus of blame-shifting and spin from our leaders.

When I spoke out about our own experiences of sexual harassment and assault in politics, I did so to create change, much like Brittany has bravely done.

Somewhat foolishly, I believed that sharing such a personal, traumatic experience would be enough to spur politicians – my former employers, colleagues and friends, many who have known me since my teens – into action.

It did not.

My former boss, now federal Minister for Finance, Senator Simon Birmingham, is aware of my allegation that I was sexually assaulted during my time as a staffer in his office.

He has known about that for at least eighteen months. He knew before my story broke.

In July 2019, as I prepared to share my experience publicly, I asked to meet with him.

While I never found the strength, or the right moment, to disclose my assault while I was his employee, I felt it was important that he knew why I was speaking out years later.

I wanted him to understand the processes – along with the culture I experienced – that discouraged disclosure or complaints.

Moreover, I needed him to hear what happened to me, as an employer, party powerbroker and my friend.

He responded saying he had become aware of my serious allegation. Of course, I already knew it was very serious – I’d lived it.

In his response, he simply suggested I speak with professionals and referred me to the Women’s Information Service and 1800RESPECT. Not even a suggestion of involving the police, which would later become the catchcry of senior Liberals weeks later.

And he wasn’t in a position to speak to me.

Five days later, after my story came to light, he did find the time to appear on local ABC radio.

Speaking to Ali Clarke and David Bevan, he told them that I should’ve gone to my employer. It was all news to him. It “came as a surprise”, he said, when he heard that journalists were asking about my allegations, which he called deeply concerning and distressing.

Since then, I’m yet to receive a call. We haven’t spoken about it at all.

There was never a check-in. No offer of support, either professional or personal. To this day, he hasn’t even bothered to ascertain my version of events.

READ MORE: Senator Simon Birmingham responds to questions about his handling of Chelsey Potter’s allegation

Because to be a woman in the Liberal Party – a woman like me – is to experience two sides of a coin.

On one side, there is the public response. Politicians meet our claims with their doorstops and radio grabs, their exclamations of deep concern and distress.

On the other, when the cameras are gone, the story blown over, we are left with nothing but isolation and silence.

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We’re made to feel like troublemakers, not team players, only good for an awkward glance at party events and whispers as we walk away.

In recent days, I have watched my former boss stand up and speak on the issue of assault and process in the Senate, with his earnest words and face solemn.

And I’m certain Brittany Higgins has seen the same in her former employers.

That betrayal has a sting that is hard to describe. The hurt simply overwhelms.

Many women staffers – too many – have long felt failed by their bosses, by our Parliament and by the MOPs Act.

I know Simon would never countenance sexual assault.

I also understand Simon cannot undo the damage that has been done to me, by both my assault and the deeply lacking response to it.

However, he can ensure that no other woman suffers the same.

Today, I’m sending him a message.

Something clearer than the gerberas another former colleague once sent me.

Like Brittany, I believe any review into workplace safety at Parliament House must be independent. For meaningful change to occur, we must ensure women can speak out, free of party pressures.

We must hear from former staff both in the Liberal Party and across the aisle, those who have experienced these system failures firsthand.

We need new robust, clear processes for complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and assault. We need to turn the tide on boys’ club culture in Canberra.

We must have outcomes. Change must be swift.

As Minister for Finance, overseeing the department which handles the process I didn’t trust and deals with the complaints women struggle to make, Simon is well-positioned to advocate. It is time he did so.

After all, this week’s allegations are the tip of a titanic-sinking iceberg. And inaction is a terrible political liability.

I never wanted to be part of this conversation. I never wanted to be known for the worst thing that happened to me. I only do so because many others cannot.

But Simon, I’m prepared to try and have this conversation again with you.

Because until our Parliament acts, and our MPs take responsibility, I will continue to hear women’s stories and relive their trauma with them, simply because they have nowhere else to go.

Surely, Simon, you could at least spare me that.

Chelsey Potter is a former Liberal staffer. 

You can read Simon Birmingham’s response to InDaily’s questions here.

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