Defence Minister Linda Reynolds began crying and was unable to answer a question in the Senate on Thursday, as questions raged over the government’s botched response to an alleged rape at Parliament House.
There is also scrutiny about how the Prime Minister’s office is handling Brittany Higgins’ explosive sexual assault allegations, amid claims Morrison government staff “backgrounded” journalists with information critical of Ms Higgins’ current partner.
Senator Reynolds, who was Ms Higgins’ boss at the time of the 2019 alleged incident, again apologised to her former employee on Thursday.
In the Senate’s Question Time, she said she was “deeply sorry” that Ms Higgins’ complaint was not handled better, but defended her own actions.
Senator Reynolds has known about the alleged rape for more than two years but PM Scott Morrison maintains he was not informed until this week.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash admitted on Wednesday she had known the details for at least two weeks, and knew of a serious incident involving Ms Higgins as long ago as October 2019.
Later on Thursday, when asked an unrelated question about Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s alleged pork-barrelling of a community safety grant, Senator Reynolds appeared to become overwhelmed with emotion and was unable to answer.
She shifted in her seat for several moments, gathering some papers, before taking to her feet but not speaking.
“If I could ask if I could have indulgence, to answer this on Monday,” she said after a pause, her voice cracking and tears visible in her eyes.
“I think I’d be in a better position to answer this on Monday. If you could give me a minute … could I take it on notice?”
On the other side of Parliament House, Mr Morrison responded for the first time to Ms Higgins’ claim that he was “victim-blaming” her for not reporting the incident to police.
“I am very sorry she feels that way. She must be under tremendous stress during the course of this week,” Mr Morrison said.
“She has shown courage and bravery in speaking up. I have been listening to what she’s been saying and I am seeking to put in place arrangements … to try and make it a safer place.”
The PM defended his response, saying “everyone here tried to do the right thing”.
“They took advice and followed the advice and they sought to provide that support and this is what the challenge here is for us. Even when that has been done, it hasn’t done the job because now Brittany clearly feels that way,” he said.
“That is what we are seeking to apply our attention, to ensure we learn from that and others are not in a position where they are faced with this again.”
But scrutiny has exploded after claims inside the parliamentary press gallery that staff from Mr Morrison’s office had briefed media with claims to “undermine” Ms Higgins’ current partner.
Network 10’s Peter van Onselen first made that allegation on ABC radio on Thursday morning, and it was followed by a story in The Guardian.
“The Prime Minister’s office has been backgrounding that her partner, her now partner, has a vendetta, or a gripe might be the better way to put it, against the government because of him being a former public servant,” Van Onselen said.
The New Daily did not receive any such backgrounding, but sources close to Ms Higgins have told TND they believe it occurred.
TND asked Health Minister Greg Hunt if he was aware of any such backgrounding.
“No, I’ve not heard that, and I’m not aware of that,” he said.
“Our job is to provide the absolute maximum support. Both for Brittany, who’s obviously been through the most agonising and horrific of personal experiences imaginable. And, also, to see real and lasting change is the legacy out of this.”
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said he would take a different approach than Senator Reynolds.
“Should there be an allegation of a sexual assault in my office, obviously the way I handle it would be informed by the processes and the procedures that we’re now developing,” he told ABC radio on Thursday.
“I’m sure the answer to that question would be yes.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also said he would do things differently.
“If there was a serious allegation like that, I would make sure the authorities knew,” he said on Thursday.
Mr Morrison also remains under scrutiny for what he knew about the allegations, as at least two of his staff were involved in handling Ms Higgins’ complaint.
Mr Morrison maintains his office knew nothing of the claims until it received a media inquiry last Friday afternoon, and that he personally didn’t know until Monday morning, when the story broke online.
In Mr Morrison’s timeline, that means nobody in his well-staffed press office told him about the potential tsunami of a story in the two-and-a-half days between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.
That’s a claim that has boggled the minds of many journalists and politicos inside Parliament House in recent days.
It is also “implausible”, according to Anthony Albanese. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called it “inconceivable” that Mr Morrison’s office didn’t know earlier, saying it would have been “absolutely baffling”.