Disgrace in the House: who said and did what, where and when

By Kishor Napier-Raman

Thursday February 18, 2021

One can only speculate why the federal government would not trumpet compliance with a major, international corruption-prevention standard.
One can only speculate why the federal government would not trumpet compliance with a major, international corruption-prevention standard. (frdric/Adobe)

March 23, 2019: Brittany Higgins, a 24-year-old weeks into her “dream job” as a media adviser to Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds, is allegedly sexually assaulted by a fellow staffer in Parliament House.

Higgins told news.com.au the alleged perpetrator, a Liberal “rising star”, had taken her back to Reynolds’ office while she was intoxicated after a night of drinking and sexually assaulted her.

She didn’t have her security pass and struggled to sign her own name at the desk. It’s also alleged security unlocked the office at the male staffer’s request. Higgins passed out and woke up to the staffer having sex with her. He then left, and Higgins remained asleep on the couch. She was found by security the next morning and slipped out of Parliament House still in her cocktail dress.

Later that day, the Department of Parliamentary Services informed the Department of Finance that two staffers had been found after hours in Reynolds’ office, in breach of rules. Finance sent steam cleaners into Reynolds’ office.

Finance claimed Higgins is offered an ambulance home. Both Higgins and DPS dispute this.

March 26, 2019: After the Finance Department tells Reynolds’ office that Higgins was found half naked in her office, Higgins is called in for a formal employment meeting with the senator’s acting chief of staff, Fiona Brown. Brown is on secondment from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office and will return there after the election.

The meeting concerns the security breach. Higgins is told the staffer who allegedly raped her offered his resignation on the spot that day. According to Higgins, the tone of the discussion is “like a disciplinary meeting”.

The prime minister’s office is aware of the “security breach” and agrees the male staffer’s employment should be terminated. Morrison’s chief of staff, John “The Kunk” Kunkel, is in the meeting when the male staffer is fired, but the government maintains he is unaware of the sexual assault allegation.

March 27, 2019: Higgins discloses the incident to the Parliament House police unit.

March 28, 2019: In a subsequent meeting with Reynolds’ chief of staff, Higgins alleges she was sexually assaulted.

April 1, 2019: Higgins discusses the incident with Reynolds. The meeting is held in the same office where the alleged assault occurred. Reynolds later concedes this was “a mistake”.

Higgins says during the meeting Reynolds wanted to know whether she would go to the police.

“I felt like they were ticking a box,” she said.

Higgins says Reynolds never mentioned the incident to her again.

April 8, 2019: Higgins goes to Belconnen police station. Officers tell her they are having difficulty obtaining CCTV footage from Parliament House. But DPS later says police did view the footage in April 2019 and that it was still stored and available.

April 13, 2019: Two days after Morrison calls the election, Higgins tells police not to pursue any further investigation. She feels she has to protect the party and her job, and refers to “workplace demands” as the reason why.

October 18, 2019: Higgins is now working for Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. Cash’s chief of staff gets a call from Reynolds after a journalist from The Canberra Times contacts her about “an incident” that occurred with a staffer in her office before the election.

November 2020: Yaron Finkelstein, a senior staffer in the prime minister’s office who is considered Scott Morrison’s “fixer”, calls Higgins to “check in” after a Four Corners episode about harassment in parliament goes to air. Higgins says Finkelstein didn’t discuss the specific assault.

Morrison disputes this, saying his office’s phone records do not show evidence of a call. Sources close to Higgins say the call happened on WhatsApp.

February 5, 2021: Higgins resigns from Cash’s office citing ongoing trauma from her assault.

February 12, 2021: Morrison’s office reportedly becomes aware of Higgins’ allegations after receiving questions about its response. But the prime minister later says he did not find out about the incident until the morning the story broke.

February 15, 2021: Higgins story breaks on news.com.au. Morrison’s office releases a statement apologising to Higgins. Reynolds still refuses to comment.

In an interview on The Project, Higgins is scathing about the government’s handling of her complaint, saying she was left unsupported and made to feel like a problem.

February 16, 2021: Morrison addresses media at length about Higgins’ allegations. He maintains he was unaware until the story broke the day before, and criticises Reynolds for failing to inform him. He announces backbencher Celia Hammond will lead a consultation process about how to deal with behaviour in parliament.

But Morrison is also roundly criticised for invoking his daughters when discussing Higgins’ alleged assault.

“Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’ ” Morrison said.

“Jenny has a way of clarifying things. Always has. And so, as I’ve reflected on that overnight and listened to Brittany and what she had to say.”

Australia is lucky Morrison doesn’t have sons.

Australian of the year Grace Tame commends Higgins’ courage and says she hopes justice is reached.

This article is curated from our sister publication Crikey.

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