Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins on Wednesday accused Scott Morrison of “victim-blaming rhetoric” – as the Prime Minister sought to explain why his own staffer failed to tell him Higgins had alleged she’d been raped.
Malcolm Turnbull cast doubt on Morrison’s claim his office only knew of the allegation last week, saying it was “inconceivable” key members of the Prime Minister’s staff did not know earlier.
Higgins, who worked for then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds, claims she was raped by a colleague after the two returned to the minister’s Parliament House late one night in March 2019. She has said she was very drunk and the assault occurred when she fell asleep on the minister’s couch.
Morrison says he only learned of the rape allegation this week and his office only “became aware of this issue on February 12 of this year.”
But one of his staffers, Fiona Brown, was Reynolds’s acting chief of staff at the time and handled the matter.
Pressed about this obvious discrepancy Morrison told parliament: “It is not common practice…that when staff move between offices, that they disclose matters of other offices”.
In a further attempt to defuse the escalating affair, Morrison said he would set up an independent review of the workplaces of parliamentarians and their staff, following a suggestion made by Anthony Albanese.
In a letter to Albanese Morrison said: “In particular, I have asked that this process considers the adequacy, effectiveness, independence and awareness of current supports that are available to parliamentarians and their staff”.
On Tuesday he asked Liberal backbencher Celia Hammond “to identify ways that standards and expectations and practices can be further improved” in the parliamentary workplace. He also has Stephanie Foster, from his department, advising him on better processes “to support people when incidents of this nature arise”.
Higgins, who said on Tuesday she would make no further comments, on Wednesday issued a statement saying the “continued victim-blaming rhetoric by the Prime Minister is personally very distressing to me and countless other survivors”.
She said the government had questions to answer about its own conduct.
Obviously referring to Brown, she said: “A current senior staffer to the Prime Minister and my former Chief-of-Staff refused to provide me with access to the CCTV footage from that evening and continually made me feel as if my ongoing employment would be jeopardised if I proceeded any further with the matter”.
Michaelia Cash, for whom Higgins was working until she resigned recently, said she only learned of the rape allegation earlier this month.
In emotional account to the Senate of a discussion with Higgins, Cash said: “I told her that I wanted her to stay in her role and that I would do anything to assist her, including relocating her position to Queensland if she wished.
"I offered to go directly to the AFP with her so that she could provide them with a statement. I said I would sit with her while she did this.
"She advised me she did not want to pursue it. I also offered to go to the Prime Minister’s office with her, to raise the issue directly with them. She said no. She advised me that at all times she wanted her privacy respected.
"I told Brittany that I would reluctantly accept her resignation, but I made it very clear to her that I was there for her and that, if she needed anything, all she had to do was ask.”
A statement late Wednesday from Parliament’s presiding offices, Speaker Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan, said: “As recently as Friday 5 February 2021 the POs were advised by the AFP there was no active investigation into the events of 26-27 March 2019.
"The POs were not aware of the identity of Ms Higgins until contacted by media on Friday 12 February 2021.
"On 12 February, following receipt of a media inquiry, the POs contacted the AFP and were advised that Ms Higgins had since approached the police and indicated she wished to proceed with a complaint and it was an open investigation.
"The POs have had ongoing consultations with the AFP regarding this matter with respect to retention of relevant CCTV footage … the footage will be made available to the AFP for the purposes of any investigation.”
Smith and Ryan added: “The POs have not viewed the footage. The CCTV footage in question has only been viewed by members of the AFP, authorised [Department of Parliamentary Services] officials and the independent investigator. DPS has not provided CCTV footage access to any parliamentarian or member of staff.”
Read more: Why political staffers are vulnerable to sexual misconduct — and little is done to stop it