Scott Morrison’s chief of staff has cleared the PM’s media team of ‘backgrounding’ journalists against Brittany Higgins’ partner.
However, it came amid revelations another internal investigation into what the Prime Minister’s staff knew about her rape allegations might never be publicly released, prompting Labor claims of a “cover-up of a cover-up”.
Police have also said they might refer their investigation of Ms Higgins’ report to prosecutors “within weeks”, the next step toward potentially laying charges over the alleged 2019 sexual assault.
In an explosive day of revelations on Tuesday, separate Senate estimates sessions heard from Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw. In those hearings:
- Mr Gaetjens and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham would not commit to publicly releasing the internal report into what Mr Morrison’s staff knew of Ms Higgins’ claims;
- Mr Gaetjens declined to detail how many interviews he had conducted, and whether any staff had engaged lawyers;
- Mr Gaetjens could not immediately outline the exact parameters or objective of his internal probe;
- and Commissioner Kershaw detailed further information about the AFP notifying Peter Dutton of an alleged sexual assault inside Parliament in 2019.
“Do you feel no shame, Senator Birmingham, about the way this has dragged out?” Labor senator Penny Wong said.
She later tweeted claims that Mr Morrison was trying “to hide the facts and protect his personal interests – all at Ms Higgins’ expense”.
Phil Gaetjens is being grilled in estimates this morning. He’s confirmed that the Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation inquiry into who knew what and when in the PM’s office has resumed. This is Senator Penny Wong’s take on what we’ve heard so far: @SBSNews #auspol pic.twitter.com/5zBKzIl0ou
— Shuba Krishnan (@ShubaSKrishnan) May 25, 2021
Senator Birmingham defended the timeline, saying it was important for the process to run its course.
“Brittany Higgins deserves to have a thorough process completed, one that is of integrity,” he said.
On Monday, Ms Higgins – reacting to news that Parliament House security procedures had not been updated since her 2019 allaged assault – said it “defied belief”.
Kunkel clears PMO of Higgins backgrounding
A separate inquiry from the PM’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, found no evidence to support Ms Higgins’ allegations that staff from Mr Morrison’s media team had ‘backgrounded’ journalists in the parliamentary press gallery with negative information about her partner.
Dr Kunkel, who said he interviewed numerous journalists and senior members of Mr Morrison’s media team, said “evidence before me falls well short of the standard that would be needed to arrive at such a finding”.
Mr Morrison, in tabling the report in Parliament on Tuesday, claimed Dr Kunkel had “found in the negative”. However, Dr Kunkel said he was “not in a position to make a finding that the alleged activity took place”, but did not specifically rule out that it had happened.
In his report, Dr Kunkel wrote “such a finding would be based upon hearsay”.
Dr Kunkel’s report into whether Scott Morrison’s media staff backgrounded against Brittany Higgins:
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) May 25, 2021
Dr Kunkel’s report noted “all senior members of the [PM’s] media team rejected the allegation” and that no journalist “recounted, or was in a position to substantiate, first-hand experience of such activity”.
Senator Gallagher named three senior members of Mr Morrison’s press office as allegedly being involved in ‘backgrounding’ of journalists. Senator Birmingham said he could not confirm whether those staff had been involved in Dr Kunkel’s inquiry, and the report did not detail any specific names.
Gaetjens, Morrison accused of ‘cover-up’
Mr Gaetjens, now secretary of the PMs department and formerly Mr Morrison’s chief of staff, repeatedly declined to answer questions from Labor senators on the progress of his own, separate investigation and asked to take questions on notice.
Opposition members of the committee repeatedly voiced their frustration, with Labor senator Katy Gallagher claiming “it’s like a cover-up of a cover-up of a cover-up. It’s like triple cover-up”.
Mr Gaetjens said his report – which had been paused on the advice of federal police, pending their own criminal investigation – was in the process of being finished. He said it would be completed within “weeks, not days, certainly not months”.
“Does it really take 100 days for the Prime Minister to get advice on who knew what, when, in his office?” Senator Gallagher said.
Mr Gaetjens and Senator Birmingham both said they could not commit to that report being made public, saying Mr Morrison would decide if it would be released.
Police ‘brief of evidence’ on Brittany Higgins
In a different hearing, in a separate part of Parliament House, AFP Commissioner Kershaw revealed that ACT Police had been working on their own criminal investigation into Ms Higgins’ claims.
He said a “brief of evidence is likely to be provided to the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions in coming weeks”, related to her allegations.
That could be the next step toward possible criminal action.
#auspol Federal Police Commissioner reveals a brief of evidence is likely to go to the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions within weeks regarding Brittany Higgins' rape complaint. @10NewsFirst @BrittHiggins_ pic.twitter.com/jvgELmiOS3
— Tegan George (@tegangeorge) May 25, 2021
Commissioner Kershaw also defended advising Mr Gaetjens to briefly suspend his inquiry, and said ACT Policing later told him there was no problem with a crossover between the two investigations.
“Mr Gaetjens did make the right call in suspending his inquiry but I did want to make sure there was no problematic intersection with the criminal investigation,” he said.
In questions on notice responses to the Senate, also revealed on Tuesday, the AFP also defended its decision to provide no in-depth details of its investigation into Ms Higgins’ allegations, saying it could prejudice or jeopardise its work.
“The AFP has provided all information it is in a position to disclose about the allegation of sexual assault at Parliament House,” the AFP said in its answer to questions on notice.
Providing further details could prejudice the criminal investigation or any future proceedings, the AFP said, claiming it might impact witnesses coming forward or lead to “contamination” of potential jury pools.