Scott Morrison’s top public servant and the President of the Senate have refused to answer questions on their responses to Brittany Higgins’ allegations of rape inside Parliament House, with Labor claiming their action “looks like a cover-up”.
It came as the secretary of the Prime Minister’s department made the bombshell revelation that nearly a fortnight ago he “paused” his review into what Scott Morrison’s office knew about Ms Higgins’ allegations, after a request from police.
However, the Australian Federal Police has directly contradicted the claims from Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens, saying that he was not asked to pause or alter his enquiries.
Mr Morrison has not previously mentioned the pause, despite several direct questions about the internal inquiry in recent weeks.
“What a farce. A travesty for accountability for the parliament,” railed Labor senator, Katy Gallagher.
This is classic Scott Morrison. He told Parliament Mr Gaetjens would answer questions today, knowing full well that the investigation had been halted.
And in the room next door we learn that the Police Commissioner never actually instructed Gaetjens to stop his inquiry anyway. pic.twitter.com/Jx2dWxQHpb
— Katy Gallagher (@SenKatyG) March 22, 2021
Senate estimates hearings exploded into life on Monday morning, with the AFP, the departments of the Senate and Parliamentary Services, and the DPM&C appearing for questioning in Canberra.
Front and centre were questions on mounting sexual assault allegations inside Parliament, including those from Ms Higgins and those levelled against Attorney-General Christian Porter.
Mr Gaetjens had been tasked by Mr Morrison with leading an internal review into what – if anything – the PM’s office knew about the incident reported by Ms Higgins. Mr Gaetjens is the PM’s former chief of staff and right-hand-man.
Mr Morrison shrugged off questions about the review in recent weeks, but on Monday Mr Gaetjens made the stunning admission that he had actually paused it 13 days ago – a move that was not made public at the time.
“On the 9th of March, the AFP Commissioner informed me it would be strongly advisable to hold off finalising the records of interviews with staff until the AFP could clarify whether the criminal investigation into Ms Higgins’ sexual assault allegations may traverse any issues covered by the administrative process,” Mr Gaetjens told the Senate on Monday.
“I was advised this reflects the strong preference of the AFP in all cases where a criminal process is underway.”
“As a result, I have put on hold the process of finalising documentation for my enquiries and the preparation of a report to the Prime Minister. This is to ensure there is no real or perceived intersection between my inquiry and the criminal investigation into the allegations.”
— Tegan George (@tegangeorge) March 22, 2021
Mr Gaetjens said he told Mr Morrison of his decision on the same day, March 9. He would “make no further comment on the process or content of enquiries today, to avoid any risk of prejudicing the outcomes of the investigation”.
Labor members of the Senate committee were stunned at the revelation.
Mr Morrison told Parliament as recently as March 18 that the opposition should ask Mr Gaetjens himself about the investigation into Ms Higgins’ claims.
In Question Time last Thursday, the Prime Minister said he had no update on when Mr Gaetjens’ report would be complete, and did not mention that he had been told nine days earlier of its pause.
“‘I have no doubt the opposition will be able to ask questions of him in Senate estimates next week, which is the appropriate place where those matters can be raised with the secretary of my department,” Mr Morrison said at the time.
According to Monday’s revelations, Mr Morrison had already known for nine days by then that Mr Gaetjens’ review was halted.
Mr Gaetjens could not answer why Mr Morrison did not mention that fact. He said his decision was an attempt to protect the interests of Ms Higgins, and the formal investigation into her police report.
“Do not use her interests as a shield,” said Labor’s Penny Wong.
Mr Gaetjens said he may be able to un-pause his investigation if and when a police investigation comes to an end – which could be many months or even years.
However, AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw specifically said in another Senate hearing earlier in the morning that police did not ask Mr Gaetjens to stop his inquiry. Mr Kershaw said police had raised concerns about the “intersection” of their criminal investigation and Mr Gaetjens’ internal review, saying “it may” cause problems.
But when asked specifically by Senator Kristina Keneally whether Mr Gaetjens had been asked to “alter those terms of reference or go slow or pause his inquiry”, Mr Kershaw responded “no, but that’s a decision he may wish to take”.
Earlier, Senate President Scott Ryan refused to answer any questions on the internal investigations or response to the alleged incident involving Ms Higgins. He said he did not want to prejudice the pending police probe, and he did not know what answers might “inadvertently cause a problem”.
Labor senators were irate.
“It looks like a cover-up, Mr President. You’re not answering any questions,” Senator Katy Gallagher said.
Senator Ryan responded that he was “not going to put at risk, even if it would be easier for me to answer questions, an investigation of this gravity”.
Sexual assault and family violence support lines:
1800 Respect National Helpline: 1800 737 732
Sexual Assault Crisis Line Victoria: 1800 806 292
Safe Steps Crisis Line (Vic): 1800 015 188
Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491
Lifeline (24-hour Crisis Line): 131 114
Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277