Greens senator Larissa Waters has launched an extraordinary attack on Peter Dutton, after he batted off criticism for keeping details of a staffer’s rape allegations hidden from the Prime Minister.
The commissioner of the Australian Federal Police has now written to the Prime Minister over Brittany Higgins’ allegations of rape, warning “failure to report alleged criminal behaviour… risks prejudicing any subsequent police investigation.”
Mr Dutton, the Home Affairs Minister, admitted on Thursday “a mistake was made” in Scott Morrison’s office when the PM’s staff failed to pass on details of former staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegations.
Mr Dutton’s admission came even as he backed in his own decision to keep the PM in the dark.
But it was Mr Dutton’s reference to details of the rape allegations as “he said, she said” that sparked the ire of Senator Waters, the Greens’ deputy leader and spokesperson for women.
— Larissa Waters (@larissawaters) February 25, 2021
Mr Dutton sensationally revealed on Wednesday that the Australian Federal Police briefed him on Ms Higgins’ claims, on February 11.
That’s a full day before the PM’s office received a media inquiry about the incident, and four days before Mr Morrison maintains he found out.
“If I don’t need to disclose something, I don’t. And I formed the judgment that that was not to be disclosed,” Mr Dutton said of his decision not to tell Mr Morrison.
“I made a judgment that I had received a briefing from the Australian Federal Police Commissioner about a sensitive matter. I took a decision that I wasn’t going to disclose that to the Prime Minister. I think that was the right decision.”
Mr Dutton said his chief of staff had informed the PM’s office of the AFP briefing, once the media inquiry was received.
“As a courtesy to the Prime Minister’s Office on the 12th [of February], when there were media inquiries, we provided some detail to him – just that the AFP had an interest in this matter,” Mr Dutton said.
“I wasn’t provided with the ‘she said, he said’ details of the allegation. It was at a higher level.”
According to Mr Dutton, “a mistake was made” when the PM “wasn’t informed by his office” of the allegations made by Ms Higgins, who is a former Liberal staffer.
"I wasn’t provided with the ‘she said/he said’ details of the allegation. It was at a higher level." @PeterDutton_MP on Brittany Higgins' rape complaint. @10NewsFirst #auspol pic.twitter.com/IqhfRrGigd
— Tegan George (@tegangeorge) February 24, 2021
Mr Dutton joins a growing coterie of senior Liberals, including Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, Senate President Scott Ryan, Speaker of the House Tony Smith, and several staff in the Prime Minister’s office, who knew some or all the details of Ms Higgins’ allegations but did not tell Mr Morrison.
AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw has now written to the Prime Minister, saying all criminal conduct should be reported without delay.
“I cannot state strongly enough the importance of timely referrals of allegations of criminal conduct,” Mr Kershaw said.
He said the failure to report criminal behaviour or allowing allegations to be aired in the media risked prejudicing police investigations.
“By not adhering to this process, there is a real risk that any alternative actions by individuals may lead to obstructing, preventing, perverting or defeating the course of justice or administration of the law,” Mr Kershaw wrote.
“Failure to report alleged criminal behaviour in this manner, or choosing to communicate or disseminate allegations via other means, such as through the media or third parties, risks prejudicing any subsequent police investigation.”
‘Matters for him’: Morrison
As Mr Dutton spoke in Parliament House on Thursday morning, Mr Morrison was giving his own press conference, just across the building.
He defended himself and Mr Dutton for not sharing information earlier.
“It’s his operational practice … they’re matters for him,” Mr Morrison said.
He said the AFP and intelligence agencies regularly briefed him directly on sensitive issues, but “that was not done on this occasion”.
As the list of senior Coalition figures who knew before he did grows, Mr Morrison again downplayed concerns that he wasn’t told of the rape claim earlier.
“Had it been the case that that was brought to my attention at an earlier time, my action would have been the same as those ministers’ actions,” he said.
“That is to say, has the matter been drawn to the attention of the police? The answer to that question was yes, it had.”
The PM was speaking after an International Women’s Day breakfast in Parliament. In his speech to the gathering, he admitted it had been a “traumatic few weeks for the people who work in this place”.
“But even more traumatic, obviously, for those who are the subject of those issues,” Mr Morrison said.
“If we want to create a culture of respect for women, it must draw from a deeper wellspring in our society and our community of respect for one another. In this place, we deal with so many of the consequences that start with a lack of respect.”
In his speech to the same function, Labor leader Anthony Albanese appealed for cultural change within Parliament, saying the building must not become “a blight on the hill” – a reference to the “light on the hill” slogan of former Labor PM Ben Chifley.
“What we’ve seen and heard in this building over the past fortnight is a stark reminder of how much work we need to continue to do,” he said.
“No woman should feel unsafe in her workplace. There will be many people looking at this building, in a completely non-partisan way, shaking their head and thinking this building is not worthy of them. That they don’t want to work in the building.”
“It’s quite heartbreaking … change cannot come fast enough, but we’re working on it.”