News Politics Australian Politics Paul Bongiorno: The government employs the shambles excuse in the Brittany Higgins saga
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Paul Bongiorno: The government employs the shambles excuse in the Brittany Higgins saga

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Scott Morrison’s government is a shambles – but don’t take my word for it, take his.

Labor’s Peta Murphy used Question Time to cite a report stating that Brittany Higgins – soon after she was allegedly raped in the office of the Defence Industry Minister – contacted a colleague in the Prime Minister’s office who was “mortified and discussed the need of a counsellor for her”.

Ms Murphy asked: “Isn’t it beyond belief that the Prime Minister’s office didn’t know when this exchange occurred two years ago?”

Mr Morrison was sticking to his guns, carefully hiding behind the weasel words that he is “advised” that the first his office knew was just over a week ago.

Now he has asked the secretary of his department to find out who knew what when.

What an admission of a complete lack of trust in the engine room of the Australian government.

Can Mr Morrison not personally ask his principal private secretary or other hand-picked advisers, what and when they exactly knew, let alone why they didn’t tell him?

One of his current senior staffers, Fiona Brown, dealt directly with the Higgins crisis two years ago as minister Linda Reynolds’ chief of staff.

She didn’t think it was her duty to inform the Prime Minister’s office, if you can believe Mr Morrison, even after she rejoined it post-election.

This could be believable. Except that she has had personal experience of political crisis management when working in the office of then Opposition front bencher Arthur Sinodinos in 2013.

When Senator Sinodinos was facing questions of declarations of pecuniary interests and handling of donations to the Liberal Party from dubious sources, Ms Brown kept the then-senate leader and party leader Tony Abbott fully informed.

But seven years later, when the stakes are much higher in government, she apparently didn’t follow this standard procedure.

Just as curious is Minister Reynolds’ behaviour. She has now regained her composure and batted away questions about her role in the handling of the shameful criminal incident.

Linda Reynolds wiped away tears in the Senate.

The minister told the Senate “this was Brittany Higgins’ story to tell” and she was respecting her privacy.

She had no light to throw on why her young staffer thought she would lose her job if she went to the police.

Former Howard government cabinet minister Amanda Vanstone provides a clue.
Writing in The Age, Ms Vanstone says she would have thought very  carefully before offering Higgins a job. “Possible powder keg” are the words that would have come to her mind.

The journalist who broke the story, Samantha Maiden, asked on Twitter why then did Senator Reynolds ring up fellow minister Michaelia Cash’s office in October 2019, to forewarn of a media query – without telling Brittany Higgins.

A fourth woman has now gone to the media to tell of the alleged perpetrator’s unwanted groping of her thigh in a Canberra bar.

Two others have come forward detailing their allegations of the man’s sinister modus operandi: He plies them with drinks in a bar then, when they are near legless, offers to take care of them.

In both their cases, they say they were raped when they were unconscious – the same as Ms Higgins’ allegations.

Pictures on his now-deleted social media pages showed the alleged rapist still fraternising with his old staffer mates, several of whom are currently in the prime minister’s office.

Minister Reynolds has ducked questions on whether she or her staff gave the man references for him to get a lobbyist’s job.

Labor asked Mr Morrison if the “alleged rapist of Brittany Higgins” has had lobbyist meetings with ministers or their staffs or departmental officials “at any time since the rape occurred”.

The Prime Minister replied he didn’t know, but would be “happy to confirm this matter to you and have it attended to as quickly as possible”.

Labor’s Penny Wong told the Senate Ms Reynolds’ office terminated the alleged perpetrator for a security breach but not Ms Higgins; she said the obvious inference is that a sexual assault was known at the time these decisions were made.

Last Friday, Ms Higgins in a statement, said she expected “a voice in framing the scope and terms of reference for a new and significant review into the conditions for all ministerial and parliamentary staff”.

Special Minister of State Simon Birmingham indicated on RN Breakfast he would consult her.

A now-unemployed Ms Higgins says she was failed repeatedly, “But I now have my voice and am determined to use it to ensure that this is never allowed to happen to another member of staff again”.

Maybe something good will come from the shameless shambles, but the precedents aren’t good.

  • For confidential help and support surrounding sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by calling 1800 737 732

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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