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Senior officials faced further questions this week about their handling of Brittany Higgins’ allegation that she was raped by a colleague in Parliament House. By Karen Middleton.

Tracing paper trail of Brittany Higgins’ alleged assault

Four days after Brittany Higgins was allegedly raped in a federal minister’s office in 2019, a senior Parliament House official was so concerned about the sensitivities surrounding a departmental “incident report” that he hand-delivered it to minister Linda Reynolds.

That official, Rob Stefanic, secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS), was among a procession of bureaucrats who faced interrogation during senate estimates hearings this week over their handling of the alleged incident and its aftermath.

Reynolds, who was Defence Industry minister at the time, had requested the report, which was generated after Higgins and a male staffer entered Reynolds’ office in the early hours of Saturday, March 23, 2019.

The request was made on Tuesday, March 26, 2019 – the same day the man involved in the alleged incident was sacked for what Reynolds has called “a security breach”. Stefanic said he delivered the incident report to her the following afternoon.

“I’d only received it a short time prior to handing it to the minister,” Stefanic told the finance and public administration committee on Monday. “Normally, if something unusual occurs in the building, some reports would be generated as a matter of record, if required.”

Labor frontbench senator Katy Gallagher pressed Stefanic on why he had chosen to deliver the report to both Reynolds and her chief of staff, Fiona Brown, by hand.

“I didn’t want to email it,” he replied.

“Why is that, Mr Stefanic?” Gallagher asked.

“Given that there may be any number of people who may have access to the email system, I thought it was important that it be provided directly to the minister’s chief of staff and the minister,” Stefanic said.

The contents of the report have not been disclosed.

Senate president Scott Ryan blocked many questions from being answered during the estimates hearings, saying they risked jeopardising the police investigation into Higgins’ alleged assault.

Both Ryan and Stefanic refused to explain the sequence of events that led to Reynolds’ office being cleaned urgently within hours of the alleged rape.

“That could go to issues of disputed fact,” Ryan told the finance and public administration committee on Monday.

On Tuesday, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw reported to the senate legal and constitutional affairs committee that ACT Policing would soon hand a brief of evidence on the Higgins matter to the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions.

Kershaw also revealed that information about 19 other alleged incidents connected to parliament – some considered “sensitive” and some relating to alleged sex crimes – had been reported in the three months since a hotline was established. Of those, the AFP was still investigating one and 10 had been referred to state and territory police.

Brittany Higgins and her senior colleague spent the night of March 22, 2019, drinking with workmates. Higgins says the colleague offered her a ride home and then asked to stop at Parliament House on the way.

Parliamentary security guards who opened Reynolds’ office for the pair reported that Higgins was noticeably inebriated. After the male staffer later left the building alone, a guard conducting a welfare check found Higgins undressed and passed out on the minister’s couch. The guard, Nikola Anderson, told ABC TV’s Four Corners in March this year that Higgins had been “completely naked”, but that she had no reason to believe a crime had been committed.

Higgins was checked again during the night. She left the building just before 10am on Saturday, March 23.

That afternoon, the Department of Finance ordered DPS to have Reynolds’ office – including the couch – specially cleaned.

Neither agency will say who made that decision, or give reasons.

No official has explained why finding Higgins naked and unconscious, after her companion had left the building without her, did not raise the possibility that an offence had been committed and evidence might need to be preserved.

On Tuesday, March 26, Higgins told Reynolds’ chief of staff that she had been raped.

She spoke to police but did not make a formal report. She has said she felt at the time that if she sought to press charges, she would lose her job. Reynolds denies Higgins was pressured and says she was encouraged to go to police. Higgins did not make a formal report until after revealing the alleged incident publicly this year.

Other ministers have faced questions over when they knew of the rape allegation.

Former Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, now Defence minister, says he was only told in February this year, after Higgins indicated to police that she intended to formalise her complaint.

However, just before this week’s estimates hearings, the AFP revealed in written answers to earlier questions that they had notified Dutton’s office in October 2019 that a journalist had inquired about the alleged rape.

Labor senators responded that this disclosure further stretched credulity around claims that Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison were unaware of the allegations for almost two years. Dutton insists he was not personally informed until February 11, 2021, four days before Higgins went public with her allegation.

Morrison has said he first knew about the alleged incident from her public comments.

On Tuesday this past week, the secretary of Morrison’s department, Phil Gaetjens, made a rare appearance before the finance estimates committee, and faced questions about the investigation he has been conducting into who in the prime minister’s office knew about the alleged rape, when they knew, and what they did about it. Morrison ordered the Gaetjens inquiry after it was revealed that some of his staff were involved in discussions with Minister Reynolds’ office and possibly others about aspects of the Higgins allegation.

Gaetjens paused investigations in March after AFP Commissioner Kershaw raised concerns that a series of administrative inquiries Morrison had ordered could interfere with police investigations.

Earlier this month, Kershaw wrote to Gaetjens indicating he could resume.

Gaetjens told the senate committee he would conclude his inquiry within “weeks, not days”.

“Whether that report is made public is not up to me, it’s up to the prime minister,” he said. Morrison revealed the findings of two other inquiries related to the Higgins matter this week.

The first had examined the processes for reporting assault and sexual assault within Parliament House and supporting victims. It was conducted by a deputy secretary of his department, Stephanie Foster.

In a press release issued while Foster and Gaetjens were giving evidence to the committee, Morrison said she had recommended a new face-to-face training program for MPs and staff and a better complaints mechanism for serious incidents.

Hours later, in response to an opposition question during question time, he suddenly tabled a four-page report from his chief of staff, John Kunkel, on allegations that members of his staff had backgrounded journalists with material disparaging Higgins’ partner, former bureaucrat and press gallery journalist David Sharaz.

“My chief of staff found in the negative,” Morrison said.

However, the report said only that the allegation could not be proved.

“I do not make a finding that negative briefing against Mr Sharaz of the sort alleged has taken place,” Kunkel said.

Kunkel wrote that prime ministerial staff must “hold themselves to the highest standards”. He said staff had accused journalists of raising the subject of Sharaz’s past employment. Journalists he sought to interview had declined to take part.

Labor senators were outraged that the report included the unsubstantiated criticisms of Sharaz and accused the government of using it as an opportunity to give them wider airing under parliamentary privilege.

“It’s an exercise in professional smear,” Katy Gallagher said.

On Monday, Rob Stefanic told the estimates hearing that no DPS procedures had changed since Higgins’ alleged rape, although he and Scott Ryan suggested that may yet occur. “To say we would learn nothing from this process would be foolish,” Stefanic said.

Gallagher was incredulous.

“A young woman was allegedly raped in this building a couple of years ago and I’m hearing from you guys that no changes need to happen to the way this building is managed or the way security is provided or how red flags are watched,” Gallagher said.

Ryan predicted “pushback” from senators and members if security was “applied strictly”. He said it was up to parliamentarians to change access rules and insist they be policed.

“I don’t think it would be accepted if DPS started to change the rules around access to this building or policing of offices,” Ryan said.

Stefanic told the finance committee that during “a very brief meeting” with Reynolds while delivering the incident report on March 27, 2019, he had obtained her permission to brief senate president Scott Ryan on the circumstances of the alleged incident.

Stefanic’s evidence highlights the jurisdictional web in Parliament House that can make investigating an alleged crime more complicated than if it had occurred elsewhere.

 

Scott Ryan was to be notified about the March 23 events in the ministerial wing in his role as senate president because Reynolds is a senator. The house of representatives speaker, Tony Smith, was not notified until April 8, when a police request to view closed-circuit TV footage of Higgins and her colleague at Parliament House needed approval by both.

While DPS oversees the operation of most of the precinct, it does not govern the ministerial wing.

“The ministerial wing presents an interesting jurisdictional issue for DPS, given it is administered by the Department of Finance,” Stefanic said. Ryan explained that the arrangement was based on a 1988 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the presiding officers and the then minister for Administrative Services.

Labor senators Katy Gallagher and Kimberley Kitching pressed Stefanic and Ryan on why there had been so little collaboration between the agencies on changing policies and processes in Parliament House since that night in March 2019.

Ryan blamed the 1988 MOU.

“Maybe that’s a good point,” Ryan said. “We should look at it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Tracing paper trail of alleged assault".

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