Australian politics

PM maintains he was not made aware of 2019 allegation of sexual assault in Linda Reynolds’ office until Monday

Scott Morrison has publicly rebuked the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, for failing to tell him that a member of her parliamentary staff had alleged she’d been raped by a colleague – as the defence minister offered Brittany Higgins an unqualified apology.

Morrison told parliament on Tuesday his office was made aware of the alleged rape of Higgins, a former adviser to Reynolds, on 12 February 2021. Higgins says she was assaulted by a colleague on a couch in Reynolds’ ministerial office in March 2019.

Reynold’s chief of staff at the time of the incident, Fiona Brown, has worked in Morrison’s office since after the 2019 election, and had prior knowledge of the alleged assault, having managed Higgins directly in the aftermath.

Higgins has also said that one of Morrison’s senior political advisers, Yaron Finkelstein, had “checked in” with her at the time the ABC’s Four Corners program aired an investigation of parliament house culture in 2020, but the government says there is no record of any communication.

Confidants of Higgins say the “check-in” conversation with Finkelstein happened on the WhatsApp messaging app.

The government acknowledges that Morrison’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, and a parliamentary adviser were involved at the time the alleged perpetrator was dismissed by Reynolds for a security breach after accessing her ministerial office after hours, but were unaware of the sexual assault allegation.

As Morrison faced questions about his knowledge of the incident, Reynolds, who has faced significant pressure over whether she exercised appropriate duty of care, used Senate question time to offer Higgins an “unreserved apology” for her actions in the aftermath of the alleged assault.

Reynolds said her intention had been to support her young staffer, but she acknowledged that Higgins had felt unsupported by her employers.

Higgins issued a statement on Tuesday noting the apologies from the government, and welcoming Morrison’s undertaking to develop better processes for parliamentary staff – a development Higgins said was “long overdue”.

The former staffer said it was time for a comprehensive review of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act – the employment instrument for political staffers – to ensure there were adequate protections.

“There needs to be an independent reporting mechanism for staff where they can confidently and safely make complaints – similar to processes in many other workplaces in Australia and abroad,” Higgins said.

“Political parties also need to conduct their own internal reviews and establish formal accountability processes”.

Reynolds was pressed in the Senate to explain whether or not she had sacked the staffer who is alleged to have assaulted Higgins, and whether she subsequently assisted him with alternative employment opportunities, or with a reference.

The defence minister confirmed the staffer’s employment had been terminated for a “security breach”, and she had not supplied him with a reference or employment assistance to the best of her recollection.

Government MPs also backed Higgins’ calls for reform in their regular party room meeting on Tuesday, where a number of MPs said parliament needed an independent human resources function, and significant cultural change to ensure political offices were managed professionally.

Early on Tuesday, Morrison drafted one of his own MPs and a deputy secretary of his department to develop options to improve “the environment” of Parliament House after the sexual assault allegations.

Liberal backbencher Celia Hammond, a former university vice-chancellor, has been asked to lead a process of internal consultation about how to improve “professional behaviour” in political offices. Morrison said Hammond had “experience of dealing with these issues in institutional settings”.

The prime minister said he would also ask Stephanie Foster, a deputy secretary in his department, to provide advice on better processes to support complainants, including with an arm’s length process for any incidents where assault or sexual assault was flagged.

Labor, meanwhile, called for an independent expert review, with bipartisan oversight, into the workplace culture at Parliament House and electorate offices.

In a joint statement, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, and the shadow minister for women, Tanya Plibersek, said: “Brittany Higgins has shown true courage.

“Ms Higgins’ account of her rape in the defence minister’s office is sickening. We admire Ms Higgins’ bravery in coming forward, and hope she is now getting the genuine support and justice she is entitled to and the police investigation proceeds swiftly.”

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