Brittany Higgins was apparently blindsided by the release of “malicious” content within a report that cleared the Prime Minister’s staff of running a background smear campaign against her partner.
On Tuesday afternoon, Scott Morrison tabled in Parliament House the report from his chief of staff, John Kunkel, into claims that members of the PM’s office had given negative information about Ms Higgins’ partner, David Sharaz, to journalists.
Dr Kunkel found there was not enough evidence to confirm the ‘backgrounding’ allegations.
But Labor is outraged the report publicised the very same “malicious gossip” that was the subject of that alleged activity.
“It reads like an exercise in professional smear,” Labor senator Katy Gallagher claimed on Tuesday afternoon.
The New Daily has also been told Ms Higgins wasn’t informed in advance of the report’s release, and wasn’t told parts of her interview would be publicly detailed in the report.
Dr Kunkel said they were “serious allegations”, but following conversations with senior staff in the PM’s media team, press gallery journalists and Ms Higgins, he felt there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the events had happened.
However, TND has been told by sources close to Ms Higgins she was not aware that details of her interview for Dr Kunkel’s investigation would be included in the report, which was tabled in Parliament and made readily available to journalists.
The report details the substance of the alleged backgrounding, including negative assertions about Mr Sharaz.
TND was told Ms Higgins was only informed of the report’s publication a few minutes after it was tabled, and that neither she nor Mr Sharaz were aware it would detail the substance of the backgrounding.
TND contacted Mr Morrison’s office for comment.
‘A load of rubbish’
Senator Gallagher had earlier asked Finance Minister Simon Birmingham if three specific senior PMO staff had been interviewed by Dr Kunkel.
Following the report’s release, she claimed it was tabled “without Ms Higgins’ consent”.
Here come the PM's political fixers with a report that says — surprise surprise — the PM's office has done nothing wrong, there's nothing to see here and any backgrounding was the journalists' fault….
— Katy Gallagher (@SenKatyG) May 25, 2021
“I didn’t think you would print and table in the Parliament, the actual smear that was used against Mr Sharaz, and put it in a way that has Ms Higgins responsible for that, because it uses her complaint, and nobody even bothers to tell her?” Senator Gallagher said.
“We’re to think this is some kind of credible exercise in independent investigation? What a load of rubbish.”
Labor MP Catherine King claimed the report had “[repeated] the malicious gossip” at the centre of the alleged backgrounding.
Senator Birmingham, responding to questions about the mention of Mr Sharaz, said that “such matters were already on public record in various publications”.
“These were the allegations that Dr Kunkel was responding to,” he said.
“Allegations were made. Dr Kunkel has sought to ascertain the veracity of those allegations.”
Senator Birmingham was unable to confirm whether Ms Higgins had been informed in advance of the report’s publication.
Questions left unanswered
Earlier in the day, Senate estimates hearings heard the office of Defence Minister Peter Dutton was informed in 2019 by the Australian Federal Police of an alleged sexual assault inside Parliament.
The AFP also said ACT Police may refer its investigation of Ms Higgins’ report to prosecutors “within weeks”, the next step toward potentially laying charges over the alleged 2019 sexual assault.
Phil Gaetjens, secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, also said he was nearing completion of another, separate report into which of the PM’s staff knew about Ms Higgins’ allegations before they became public.
However, Mr Gaetjens declined to answer a number of questions on the progress of his investigation, including how many interviews he had conducted.
On Monday, Ms Higgins – reacting to news that Parliament House security procedures had not been updated since her 2019 alleged assault – said it “defied belief”.
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