The inquiry into which of the prime minister’s staff knew of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations before they were made public has come to a standstill, following advice from the Australian Federal Police.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens was tasked with leading the probe last month, after text messages emerged which suggested members of Scott Morrison’s office were told of the alleged assault soon after it occurred.
On Monday morning Gaetjens told Senate estimates he had put the inquiry on hold nearly two weeks ago, after speaking with AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw.
The senior public servant also revealed he had emailed Morrison and the PMO on March 9 to inform them of his decision to stop the probe. Morrison has been asked repeatedly about the inquiry in recent weeks, and last week told Parliament that he had not received any updates from Gaetjens.
Kershaw has said he supports Gaetjens’ decision to avoid prejudicing the outcome of the criminal investigation.
“I confirm I informed Mr Gaetjens on 9 March it was strongly advisable to hold off finalising the records of interviews with staff until the AFP could clarify whether the criminal investigation into Ms Higgins’ sexual assault allegations may traverse any issues covered by the administrative process he was undertaking,” he said in a statement.
“When the AFP has clarity about whether there is no intersection between Mr Gaetjens’ administrative inquiry and the criminal investigation I will contact Mr Gaetjens so he can move to completion of his inquiry.”
During Senate estimates just hours earlier, under questioning from Labor senator Kristina Keneally, Kershaw said he had not asked Gaetjens to stall, pause or alter his investigation.
Is Scott Morrison trying to protect the AFP's investigation – or trying to protect himself? pic.twitter.com/feqNTTMOLJ
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) March 22, 2021
Last month Higgins, a former ministerial staffer, alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by a colleague in Parliament House in 2019.
Morrison had claimed that none of his staff had known about the alleged incident until the story broke on February 15, but was contradicted when text messages emerged indicating a friend of Higgins told someone in the PMO in 2019.
While Phil Gaetjens has been investigating who knew what, sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins has been tasked with examining the way Parliament House treats and responds to allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and PM&C deputy secretary Stephanie Foster has been looking into the workplace complaints processes at Parliament House.