Dispute erupts over timing of PM’s office’s knowledge of Parliament rape claim

A crucial dispute has erupted over allegations of rape in Parliament House after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his office was only told of the events last week, a claim at odds with statements from former staffer Brittany Higgins.

Mr Morrison said phone records and other files showed his principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, did not call Ms Higgins late last year as she had claimed.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised to former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins (inset). Credit:Alex Ellinghausen/The Project

The conflicting accounts came after Mr Morrison apologised to Ms Higgins for the government’s failure to help her enough with the trauma of the events, as he vowed to change the culture of Parliament on the treatment of women.

Mr Morrison denied having a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about harassment and aired his frustration with Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who knew of the rape allegation but did not tell him.

Ms Higgins says she was raped by a colleague in Senator Reynolds’ ministerial office, where they both worked, in the early hours of Saturday, 23 March, 2019.

Ms Higgins, who left the government last month, said the Prime Minister’s “fixer” Mr Finkelstein had been “broadly in proximity” to the matter in the days after the alleged rape.

She also said Mr Finkelstein made a “strange sort of check-in” about the matter and that similar calls “happened to me kind of pretty regularly” after the events.

Ms Higgins told the Ten Network that Mr Finkelstein called her around the time the ABC’s Four Corners aired an investigation into the harassment of women, a program that aired last November.

In the interview, aired on Monday night, she said Mr Finkelstein called her and said he was “just checking in” but she did not say what he asked about or what he knew.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have been told the call was made using WhatsApp on a day when Ms Higgins had called in sick.

Government officials have gone through phone records and files to check on calls at this and other times, concluding there was no such call.

The government says Mr Finkelstein and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, treated the incident as a security breach when first told in March 2019 that Ms Higgins and her colleague had returned to the ministerial suite late on a Friday night.

The Prime Minister’s office knew of the security breach and agreed with Senator Reynolds the man involved should be terminated, a decision made on the subsequent Tuesday.

Only two days later on the Thursday, according to the government files, did Ms Higgins tell Senator Reynolds’ chief of staff that she had woken to find the man on top of her.

Mr Morrison argued on Tuesday that Senator Reynolds had not told him of this key fact.

Mr Morrison told Parliament his office only knew of the rape allegation on February 12. This was the date when News.com.au reporter Samantha Maiden contacted the Prime Minister’s office about the matter.

The Prime Minister said he only knew personally of the rape allegation at 8.30am on Monday of this week, when the news broke.

Mr Morrison said he could not explain the different accounts because he could only relay the information put before him.

“I should stress that in relation to my principal private secretary, there is nothing that has been put in front of me, nothing, including phone records or anything else that suggests that that indeed was the case,” he told reporters.

When reporters asked why someone from his office would “check in” with Ms Higgins as claimed, Mr Morrison suggested there was confusion over her account.

“The point I’m making to you is that is not the recollection or the records of my staff on that matter,” he said.

“It’s just not, so I can’t really speak more to it than that. I understand that over time, particularly in situations like this, that information can become confused over time about who makes contact and things like that.”

While Mr Morrison defended his office, he made clear his frustration with Senator Reynolds over her decision not to tell him of the rape allegation for almost two years.

The period included a series of revelations about the treatment of women in the Liberal Party and the Parliament, including concerns aired by two staffers, Chelsey Potter and Dhanya Mani, in July 2019.

Mr Morrison said the Defence Minister had sought to support Ms Higgins and exercised judgement in relation to protecting her privacy.

“Now, that judgement on that, of course, is being called into question, and that issue, I think, will carry with it some important lessons.”

Senator Reynolds told Parliament she had made a mistake in not supporting Ms Higgins enough.

“I unreservedly apologise to Brittany Higgins,” she said.

“The fact that she felt unsupported in her time working here was also very, very clear for all to see. And for that, I apologise.

“At the time, I truly believed that I and my chief of staff were doing everything we could to support that young woman who I had a responsibility for.

“At all times, my intent and my aim was to empower Brittany and let her determine the course of her own situation.”

Senator Reynolds confirmed she terminated the man in question after advice from department officials, but she did not say if he was a favourite employee in her office, as Ms Higgins claimed.

When Labor asked the minister if she had written a reference for the man or seen him in the time since he left her office, she said she would have to seek advice on how to answer.

“These are complex matters,” she told the Senate.

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