A terrible little secret in a building whose walls have ears and where gossip is gold

By Verona Burgess

Friday February 19, 2021

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The clock is ticking down to Senate estimates on the Brittany Higgins matter, says Verona Burgess.

The black hole of accountability and scrutiny that is the skeletal Members of Parliament (staff) Act 1984 is looking uglier by the day.

It can offer no comfort to Brittany Higgins in terms of justice or redress in relation to her alleged rape by a senior colleague in then Defence Industry minister Linda Reynold’s office just before the 2019 election.

But there are many ways to extract information from officials about the extraordinary cover-up within Parliament House of an alleged criminal offence that is punishable by up to 14 years of imprisonment.

In almost exactly one month’s time, on Monday, March 22, the first round of Senate Estimates committee hearings for 2021 will begin.

If they proceed as they normally do, the feared Penny Wong blow-torch will be at the ready to burn through the layers of bureaucratic obfuscation that are already beginning to mount up.

She will no doubt be aided and abetted by fellow Labor senators Kristina Kenneally, Katy Gallagher and others, including cross-benchers.

The government might hope to be saved by the bell, a.k.a. the number of inquiries that it has already said it will instigate and which, conveniently, might not be concluded by then.

No doubt officials will also be running for cover if Ms Higgins activates her dormant police inquiry before the hearings start.

Even so, the Senate finance and public administration committee will be the place to be when it comes to finding out who knew what and when about this terrible little secret in a building whose walls have ears and where gossip is gold.

The first day of estimates will likely begin, as usual, with the Department of the Senate. Non-government senators will want to know exactly what the President of the Senate, the Clerk and staff (not to mention officers of the other chamber) knew, and when, of the alleged rape inside the Senate side of the ministerial wing, as well as the nuts and bolts of the secret Senate inquiry into the ‘security breach’ that saw the alleged perpetrator sacked, with or without a payout.

Staff of the Department of Parliamentary Services, which operates security in Parliament House, will also be called to explain what exactly happened and when.

The committee could, without prejudicing any court case, even demand to view the security footage that is currently under lock and key, such that Ms Higgins herself hasn’t even been allowed to see it at time of writing. Remember, parliamentary privilege applies – what happens in parliamentary proceedings can’t be used in a court of law.

Once the senators have finished with the relevant departments of the Parliamentary Service, they can turn to the Australian Public Service and statutory authorities.

Over in the legal and constitutional affairs committee there may be efforts to draw blood out of the stone that is the Australian Federal Police, but back in the FPA committee it will soon be the turn of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

And who better than to shed some light than the Deputy Secretary Governance, Stephanie Foster, who has been asked to advise the prime minister, Scott Morrison, about establishing a (long overdue) external complaints-handling process for parliamentary staffers.

Separately, he has asked West Australian MP Celia Hammond to work with Coalition members of parliament and party whips to improve parliamentary workplace culture and protect staff – also long overdue.

Morrison has also said he wants a mandatory reporting obligation on the part of federal officials, to refer allegations of sexual assault to the Department of Finance. Hmm. Not sure Finance is the right place, but still.

He has also asked Foster’s boss, the Secretary of PM&C, Phil Gaetjens, to verify from records whether there was, as Ms Higgins has said, contact between the PMO and Ms Higgins. What constitute ‘official’ versus ‘private’ contact could be the head of the pin that is danced on here, but let’s not rush to judgement even if his report on the sports rorts affair was less than illuminating.

On Wednesday, March 24, it will be the turn of the Department of Finance to face the music about what it knew and did or didn’t do, not least in ordering a clean-up of the scene of the alleged crime.

Morrison has also announced a third review, at arm’s length of government, into the workplaces of parliamentarians and their staff. It’s unclear whether that will include a review of the MOPS Act, as it should. If so, the reviewer could do worse than acquaint themselves with the 2003 Senate inquiry into staff employed under the act, held in the wake of the children overboard affair.

Morrison has sought the support of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese in considering the adequacy, effectiveness, independence and awareness of current supports available to parliamentarians and staff. Since there are almost none, particularly for political and ministerial staff, that shouldn’t take too long.

No doubt he’d love it if Albo thought it best to call off the dogs. So far there is no sign of that, but who knows what skeletons lurk in Labor’s own cupboards.

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