PM dodges question over Peter Dutton describing Brittany Higgins rape allegation as ‘she said, he said’ | Coalition
Scott Morrison has stepped around a question about whether he agrees with Peter Dutton’s characterisation of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation as “she said, he said” as the home affairs minister defended his decision not to alert the prime minister to the potential reopening of the police investigation.
Dutton’s office earlier this week declined to answer questions from Guardian Australia and other media outlets about his contact with police but the home affairs minister finally confirmed on Wednesday the AFP told him about the allegation of sexual assault on 11 February.
Dutton said on Thursday his chief of staff subsequently told Morrison’s chief of staff about the heads-up from the Australian federal police on 12 February. Morrison is continuing to insist he wasn’t told until Monday 15 February.
Dutton told reporters on Thursday that “some detail” had been provided to Morrison’s chief of staff “when there were media inquiries” on 12 February “as a courtesy”. The minister added he “wasn’t provided with the she said, he said details of the allegations”.
The Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek asked Morrison in parliament whether he agreed with Dutton’s “she said, he said” description of the sexual assault Higgins alleges happened on a couch in Parliament House in March 2019.
Morrison didn’t engage on the substance of the question but said police needed to be able to conduct their inquiries into “serious matters”.
The prime minister was also asked why he had publicly rebuked the defence minister, Linda Reynolds – Higgins’ former employer – for not telling him about the alleged assault two years ago, but had failed to rebuke Dutton, his one-time leadership rival, for failing to convey the police heads-up to him on 11 February.
Morrison responded by intimating that he had not rebuked Reynolds, who was admitted to a Canberra hospital on Wednesday after more than a week of escalating controversy over whether she showed an appropriate duty of care to her former staffer.
The prime minister said he had made a “reference” to Reynolds. Morrison said he would have hoped that “some minimised reference” about the incident could have been brought to his attention by the defence minister.
But last week, Morrison did rebuke the defence minister.
Asked whether it was acceptable that the defence minister could be aware that a potential crime was committed in her office, yet fail to pass that information on to him, Morrison replied: “It is not, and it shouldn’t happen again.”
Reynolds is expected to return to work in the coming days. Both Morrison and Dutton expressed confidence in the defence minister on Thursday.
Separately in the Senate, the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, flagged that a review of communications between Morrison’s staff and Higgins being undertaken by the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was being prepared for “the deliberations of cabinet”.
Morrison has, so far, declined to say whether or not that review will be released. If the government refuses to release the review, the cabinet designation means it will be inaccessible under freedom of information, and officials will have grounds to decline to answer questions about it in Senate estimates hearings.
A new survey reported by Nine newspapers also underscored endemic cultural problems in parliamentary workplaces. A survey of staffers found that one in eight had been sexually harassed or assaulted in the workplace in the past year – and two-thirds of respondents were reluctant to report it due to concerns that would imperil their careers.
On Thursday, it also emerged that the Australian federal police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, had written to Morrison to underline the need for alleged sexual assaults to be reported swiftly to the AFP, while also cautioning against allegations being aired in the media.
In the letter, sent on Wednesday and subsequently distributed to all parliamentarians, Kershaw said MPs and senators and their parliamentary staff and electorate offices “may receive complaints or allegations of sexual assault from a variety of sources, including victims themselves”.
“Such matters should be reported to the AFP without delay, taking into account the rights and privacy of the victim, and irrespective of the jurisdiction in which the alleged conduct has occurred,” Kershaw wrote.
Kershaw said any delay in reporting criminal conduct could “result in the loss of key evidence, continuation of the offending and/or reoffending by the alleged perpetrator” and also had “the very real potential to compromise the rights of victims and other parties to alleged offences”.
Upon receiving the letter, Morrison wrote to the presiding officers of the House and Senate to say it was “important that members, senators and their staff feel fully empowered and supported to take the actions recommended by the commissioner”.
In a covering letter, Morrison said alleged sexual assaults were “serious and traumatic events for anyone to deal with”.
The prime minister added that the “events of the past fortnight have demonstrated again why it is so important that all members and senators are informed of their responsibilities in these situations, both to provide compassionate support to those who are affected and to ensure that we uphold the rule of law in dealing with these issues”.
A spokesperson for Morrison said the prime minister had requested the letter so that guidance could be provided to MPs and senators.
The Greens Senate leader, Larissa Waters, said the AFP had “called out a culture of silence that makes it harder to hold perpetrators to account”. Waters said ministers needed to report criminal allegations – or provide genuine support for their staff to do so.
After the Guardian reported that the alleged perpetrator may have been signed back into the building in the second half of 2019, Waters said: “If the PM was serious about protecting and respecting women, he would ask himself how a man fired following rape allegations could be allowed back into the building, and why so many people in his government did so little in response to an alleged rape of a staff member just metres from his office.”