Former Liberal staffer Chelsey Potter says she “cried a lot” after reaching out to her former boss senator Simon Birmingham to discuss her experiences of a sexual assault.

Key points:

  • Chelsey Potter has spoken out about rape allegations following separate allegations made by Brittany Higgins
  • Ms Potter says she attempted to talk about the incident with her former boss senator Simon Birmingham
  • Senator Birmingham says he hopes to see cultural change to help prevent incidents and improve handling practices

Ms Potter alleges she was sexually assaulted by another male colleague in Canberra while working for Senator Birmingham in 2015.

In 2019, ahead of going public with a story published in the Sydney Morning Herald, she contacted Senator Birmingham for a chat.

He told her to call 1800Respect.

On Tuesday morning, she told ABC Radio Adelaide she was “really crushed by that response”.

“Reaching out was a big deal to me, I know that Simon has come out and said he was contacted by journalists first,” she said.

“I’m concerned that he heard these things had happened to me and someone who had known me half my life, someone who had employed me for six years and he didn’t immediately pick up the phone and ask, ‘hey, what’s going on? I’m hearing these things from journalists?’

“It was important for me to tell him why this particular workplace wasn’t working for me and wasn’t working for women, because he is in a position to change that and make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Former Liberal staffer Chelsey Potter says she was also sexually assaulted by a party colleague.(Supplied: LinkedIn)

She said she was disappointed by her Senator Birmingham’s response.

“I cried a lot receiving that text — it [the text message] might sound a bit flippant but how do you start that conversation with someone?” she said.

Senator Birmingham describes assault allegations as ‘deeply distressing’

Senator Birmingham said he was first made aware of the allegations when his office was contacted by a journalist the week before the Sydney Morning Herald published the story.

“The allegations made by Ms Potter that were first reported on the Sydney Morning Herald website on Monday 29 July 2019 are serious and are deeply distressing,” he said.

“By 2019 neither of the individuals involved were employed by me or any other Member of Parliament.”

He released the text exchange between the pair.

“On Friday 26 July 2019, Ms Potter contacted me via text message saying:

“I responded to Ms Potter on the same day stating:

‘Thanks Chels. Unfortunately I am not in a position to catch up this weekend. I understand you have made some serious allegations to media about an incident that you claim occurred during your time working in my office. I encourage you to talk to professionals about such matters and suggest that the Women’s Information Service or 1800Respect may be appropriate options.’

“At no other point has Ms Potter raised these claims with me or anyone else in my office, or sought to discuss them with me.”

Ms Potter said she was speaking out again following rape allegations by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.

“What happened to Brittany is exactly what I thought would happen to me if I spoke out and that’s why I didn’t speak out at the time [in 2015] ,” Ms Potter told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Ali Clarke and David Bevan.

“Why does someone who has been through something traumatic has to keep pushing?”

She said when she revealed her story, there was little response from former colleagues.

“In 2019 there was a whole lot of silence and I will acknowledge [South Australian Attorney-General] Vickie Chapman got onto me very quickly in 2019 when my story went public,” she said.

Independent review necessary

Ms Potter said the review needed to be wholly independent with all findings and recommendations made public.

“There are so many women I have spoken to who will not speak out because they are genuinely worried about their reputation, genuinely worried about their employment,” she said.

“The findings of any review must be made public because current and former staff have a right to know what’s going to happen and what’s been recommended.”

She said it was important that the review also include the experiences of former political staffers.

Senator Birmingham, who has been charged with heading a bipartisan review of the workplace culture in Parliament House, said he shared Ms Potter’s wishes to see cultural changes “that help to prevent such incidents and improved handling practices”.

“Sexual harassment or assault of any kind are completely unacceptable in all circumstances,” he said.

“I encourage past and present parliamentary staff to participate in the multi-party, independent review that is being established to achieve fundamental change on these matters.”

Ms Potter said a phone call had been organised with the Senator’s office this week to discuss her experience and the cross-party review.