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As further reports of abusive sexual behaviour emerge from parliament, the AFP may be investigating the aftermath of Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape. By Karen Middleton.

Higgins police inquiry may extend to parliamentary ‘cover-up’

The president of the senate, Scott Ryan, during this week’s senate estimates.
Credit: AAP / Lukas Coch

Government officials are refusing to answer key questions about what they did after Brittany Higgins’ alleged 2019 rape, suggesting police may now be investigating the incident’s aftermath.

ACT Policing will not say if it is actively examining other potential offences, but a blanket of secrecy has been thrown over all aspects of the alleged incident, including how government officials responded after what was first reported as a “security breach”.

Senate president Scott Ryan and officials from the departments of Finance and Parliamentary Services refused to answer questions during estimates committee hearings this week about exactly what was reported and by whom following the incident in the early hours of March 23, 2019, or exactly who urgently sent in the cleaners to the ministerial suite and why.

Ryan told a hearing on Monday that not only was he unable to answer questions about events on the night, he also could not discuss what followed, because of the risk of jeopardising an investigation.

Initially, Ryan told Monday’s fiery finance and public administration estimates hearing that he was not aware of the lines of police inquiry and was “not in a position to determine what is relevant” to any investigation.

Under sustained questioning – with Labor’s Katy Gallagher and Kimberley Kitching and the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young all declaring it looked like “a cover-up” – Ryan spoke more directly.

“It is my understanding that events in the aftermath may be relevant to the course of investigation,” he said.

The events of this week have catalysed a full-blown political crisis for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government over the response to allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, and to recent mass protests over the treatment of women.

By week’s end, Morrison was moving to shift from their portfolios both Attorney-General Christian Porter and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. It was in Reynolds’ office, when she was Defence Industry minister, where Higgins alleges she was raped by a colleague. This reshuffle comes after a month of refusal to move either minister from their portfolio.

Morrison also faced accusations he had misled parliament over the status of a departmental investigation into his own staff’s engagement with the Higgins matter. The prime minister’s departmental secretary, Phil Gaetjens, told an estimates hearing he had paused his inquiries after speaking to Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Reece Kershaw. Gaetjens said he had informed Morrison of this more than a week before the prime minister told parliament he had received no update on the inquiry’s timing.

“I said, ‘He has not provided me with a further date on when I might expect that report,’ ” Morrison said in question time on Tuesday. “And he did not give me a date or a time when that report would be provided.”

Earlier on Tuesday, a prime ministerial news conference backfired dramatically, when Morrison lashed out at a journalist’s question by airing false details of an unrelated harassment complaint at News Corp and warning journalists to “be careful”.

That incident prompted a late-night apology to the company, posted on the prime minister’s Facebook page.

Scott Ryan’s evidence to estimates – signalling a possibly wider police investigation into the Higgins matter – came despite a statement he and his fellow presiding officer, house of representatives speaker Tony Smith, issued on February 17 saying police had investigated the actions of Department of Parliamentary Services officials and parliamentary security guards last year and had found no wrongdoing.

Quoting the AFP, they said actions taken by DPS employees “were not in response to a suspected crime scene” because no sexual assault allegation had been made at that time.

This week, the AFP declined to say whether it stood by last year’s finding.

Government and other parliamentary sources suggested the commencement of a formal investigation, in the wake of Higgins’ official statement to police last month, could explain the apparent shift. However, nobody was willing to confirm this.

When The Saturday Paper asked the AFP how Ryan’s comments fitted with its previous conclusion about the DPS, and whether that conclusion had now changed, it had no comment.

The Saturday Paper also asked about the testimony of security guard Nikola Anderson, who told ABC TV’s Four Corners this week that Higgins had been so intoxicated that night, she was unable to put on her shoes after passing through a security scanner.

Anderson said she had unlocked the door to the ministerial suite where both Higgins and the man with her worked and were entitled to enter, because the pair had arrived without passes or keys.

Anderson recounted being told that the man had left the building alone – in a hurry – less than an hour later. When she then went to conduct a “welfare check” on Higgins, she found her lying “completely naked” on the minister’s couch.

Anderson said Higgins opened her eyes and rolled over but was otherwise unresponsive. The guard closed the door and left, with another check conducted later before Higgins eventually woke and left the building about 10am.

The Saturday Paper asked the AFP whether a reasonable person would conclude that sexual activity might have occurred – and why, given the reported level of Higgins’ intoxication, the AFP had determined this was not “a suspected crime scene” simply because no assault had been reported at that stage. The AFP declined to respond.

Parliamentary security guards are expected to mind their own business when they come across something personally compromising in Parliament House, especially involving drunkenness. They are the lowest-ranked employees in the parliamentary hierarchy, after the cleaners and visitor guides, and are often reluctant to take too much initiative in controversial circumstances for fear of losing their jobs – the same reason Higgins gave for not reporting her alleged rape to police sooner.

Morrison and his ministers have said the termination of Higgins’ alleged rapist a few days after the incident was for “a security breach”, but have struggled to explain the nature of that breach, given both Higgins and the man were entitled to enter Reynolds’ office.

Defence Department officials told a senate estimates committee hearing this week that no “security breach” had been reported to them in relation to the Higgins incident, which occurred in the then Defence Industry minister’s office, but that there had been one reported earlier that month involving leaving documents on a desk.

During estimates, Scott Ryan revealed that he and Tony Smith had “a number” of discussions with police about the Brittany Higgins matter, including “more than one” this year.

Ryan also revealed he had given evidence about the matter in private to “two other senate fora” – understood to refer to two other senate committees.

The Saturday Paper has been told one of these was a separate inquiry now under way into the management of the DPS. The inquiry questioned Ryan late last year after receiving an anonymous submission detailing what turned out to be the Higgins incident but which was without names and some other details.

As estimates hearings continued this week, further reports emerged relating to the government’s handling of sexual misconduct.

A Channel Ten news report revealed male Liberal staffers had circulated photographs and video of themselves masturbating on the desk of a female MP. It also said male sex workers were procured for a former minister, who took them to parliament’s meditation room.

It was this report that prompted Morrison to call his Tuesday news conference, to express disgust and apologise.

“I acknowledge that many Australians, especially women, believe that I have not heard them, and that greatly distresses me,” Morrison said.

He said he had been listening to women for a long time but particularly over the past month and apologised if his own responses had been deemed not good enough.

“We must take responsibility,” he said. “It is our problem here, it is our responsibility here, and I’m committed to dealing with that. We must do better in this place, all of us, and in our country we must do better.”

As the prime minister sought to repair the political damage, two more sets of allegations emerged, one involving Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz and another involving New South Wales Nationals state MP Michael Johnsen.

In the Tasmanian parliament on Wednesday former Liberal turned independent speaker Sue Hickey alleged under parliamentary privilege that she had asked Abetz on March 1 whether the then unnamed cabinet minister accused of a historical rape was Christian Porter.

“The senator quickly responded that yes, it was the first law officer of the nation, Christian Porter, but not to worry, the woman is dead and the law will protect him,” Hickey said.

She said he also described Brittany Higgins as having been “disgustingly drunk” and willing to sleep with anybody – and that she could have put national security at risk. Abetz denied he said what was reported.

Prime Minister Morrison accepted Abetz’s denial and insisted the sentiment behind the alleged remarks did not reflect the government’s view. The Tasmanian premier, Peter Gutwein, has asked him to investigate further.

Also on Wednesday, Labor MP Trish Doyle used parliamentary privilege in the NSW parliament to say a sex worker had alleged a member of the Berejiklian government had raped her in 2019.

NSW National Michael Johnsen revealed himself to be the subject of the accusation, which he denied, and said police were investigating.

Unlike Christian Porter, who remains on stress leave following the 33-year-old rape allegation against him by a woman who took her own life before a police investigation could be conducted, Johnsen chose to step down from his assistant ministerial post until the investigation could be completed. He has since moved to the crossbench, jeopardising the Coalition’s majority.

As these stories broke, women within the Liberal Party began to speak out.

NSW state MP Catherine Cusack said Liberal women were “furious and embarrassed” but not speaking out due to party loyalty. “I have personally passed my tipping point,” she said. “I can’t defend the indefensible.”

Industry Minister Karen Andrews told ABC Radio National she’d “had a gutful” of disgusting, sexist and discriminatory behaviour. Andrews later told the ABC’s 7.30 that women in government were often frozen out of decision-making simply because they declined to be part of hard-drinking socialising where policy was often discussed and decisions made.

Liberal backbencher Sarah Henderson backed Andrews’ call for female quotas in the party, something long opposed by the majority and still opposed strongly by some, especially  conservatives.

But Morrison said he was prepared to consider it. “I’ve always been very committed to this,” he told ABC radio’s AM on Thursday. “But what matters is the outcome. What I’ve simply said … to the party organisation at every level, federal and state, that we must achieve more here … It’s not about this measure or that measure. I just want what works. Just give me what works, party organisation.”

So far, nothing else does. 

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "Higgins police inquiry may extend to parliamentary ‘cover-up’".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.