Scott Morrison is under further pressure to explain his claims that his office knew nothing of a Liberal staffer’s horrific report of rape inside Parliament House, amid revelations another senior minister knew the story – but did not tell the Prime Minister.
The former Liberal media adviser Brittany Higgins has blasted Scott Morrison for what she called “victim-blaming rhetoric”.
She also levelled explosive claims that a current staff member in Mr Morrison’s Prime Ministerial Office, formerly Linda Reynolds’ chief of staff, “continually made me feel as if my ongoing employment would be jeopardised” if she pursued her rape report.
“The government has questions to answer for their own conduct,” Ms Higgins said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier, Labor leader Anthony Albanese said it “doesn’t seem plausible” Mr Morrison’s office wasn’t aware of the incident until days ago, while former PM Malcolm Turnbull called it “inconceivable” Mr Morrison’s staff didn’t know earlier.
Ms Higgins claims that in 2019, while working in the office of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, an older male colleague raped her on a couch in their Parliament office.
Ms Higgins, then 24, later moved to Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s office – a position she left only in recent weeks.
In a blistering statement on Wednesday, after Mr Morrison again maintained he knew nothing of the alleged incident until this week, Ms Higgins said she was unhappy with the government’s response.
a blistering statement from Brittany Higgins accuses PM Scott Morrison of "victim-blaming" after her rape allegations
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) February 17, 2021
“I have only been made aware of key elements of my own sexual assault as a result of coming forward publicly with my story,” she said.
“I didn’t know that security guards let me into Minister Reynolds suite. I didn’t know that a security guard came into the office multiple times seeing me in a state of undress. I didn’t know they were undertaking an internal review into how the matter was handled at the time.”
“The continued victim-blaming rhetoric by the Prime Minister is personally very distressing to me and countless other survivors.”
Her explosive accusations that the PM was “victim blaming” came after Mr Morrison said on Tuesday “that information can become confused over time about who makes contact”.
That was in response to Ms Higgins’ recount that the PM’s right-hand man, Yaron Finkelstein, had contacted her about the time of the Four Corners investigation into treatment of women in Parliament.
One particular focus was that Senator Reynolds’ acting chief of staff at the time of the 2019 allegations – who also helped respond to the report – had worked in Mr Morrison’s office before and after that time. That staff member still works in the PM’s office.
“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,” Ms Higgins said on Wednesday.
“The government has questions to answer for their own conduct.”
Cash knew two weeks ago, offered help with AFP report
Also on Wednesday, a visibly distressed Senator Cash told the Senate she learned of the full allegations by Ms Higgins, who was her junior media adviser, on February 5.
That’s 10 days before Mr Morrison has said he first heard the story, at 8.30am on Monday morning.
“I’m absolutely devastated by what Brittany has gone through. Brittany was a valued member of my team for a year and a half,” Senator Cash said on Wednesday.
“I also offered to go to the Prime Minister’s office with her, to raise the matter directly with them. She said no.”
Brittany Higgins' former boss, Employment Minister @SenatorCash , holds back tears as she is questioned over when and what she knew about her rape allegations. @10NewsFirst #auspol pic.twitter.com/jAOy0sGIFh
— Tegan George (@tegangeorge) February 17, 2021
Senator Reynolds has been under pressure to explain her office’s handling of Ms Higgins’ case, including holding a formal employment review in the same office where the sexual assault allegedly happened.
Mr Morrison also faces scrutiny about what he knew, and when, and whether his office failed to inform him of the serious allegations.
But the spotlight swung to Senator Cash, Ms Higgins’ boss until recently, after News Corp reported that she became aware of a serious incident involving her media adviser as early as October 2019.
In the Senate’s daily Question Time on Wednesday, Senator Cash revealed she had heard the full story of Ms Higgins’ allegations on February 5.
She also admitted that in October 2019, she received a media inquiry from a journalist “that involved Brittany and her previous employment”.
“When Brittany discussed this matter with my chief of staff and I, she made it very clear that the matter had been dealt with at the time, seven months previously. She did not want to discuss the matter and she did not want the matter taken any further,” Senator Cash said, of their meeting in October 2019.
“Her focus was on her distress was with the journalist’s inquiry, and ensuring that at all times, her own privacy was respected. We respected her wishes for privacy, but I made it very clear to her, if she needed anything, she could always come to us.”
Senator Cash said she “only recently became aware” that the incident was an alleged rape, saying “it was when a journalist contacted my office for comment”.
“On Friday the 5th of February , Brittany and I spoke, and she disclosed details of what had occurred,” she said.
“I offered to go directly to the AFP with her, so 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 matter directly with them. She said no.”
Senator Cash said she told Ms Higgins she would “do anything to assist her”, including moving her job to Queensland and away from Canberra.
Earlier, in the House of Representatives’ Question Time, Mr Morrison faced more questions over his office’s knowledge and handling of Ms Higgins’ claims.
Labor shadow minister for women Tanya Plibersek asked how it could be that Mr Morrison claimed his office did not learn of the report until February 12, considering that one of his senior staff was Senator Reynolds’ chief of staff at the time of the 2019 incident.
“If someone has worked in another office, they have been bound by the issues in that office,” Mr Morrison answered.
“Particularly in the defence portfolio. And it is not common practice in my understanding that when staff move between offices, that they disclose matters of other offices. It is my advice that our office became aware of this issue on February 12 of this year.”