Morrison under spotlight, government in damage control after ‘victim-blaming’ rape response

Brittany Higgins with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2019.

Brittany Higgins with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2019.

A furious Brittany Higgins has torched the government’s “victim-blaming” response to her horrific report of rape inside Parliament House, with her former boss under immense pressure and Scott Morrison facing enormous scrutiny as he maintains he didn’t know about the allegations.

Revelations that at least two senior members of Mr Morrison’s ministry were aware of her report – but allegedly didn’t tell the Prime Minister – turned the spotlight onto how the former Liberal staffer was supported after her assault.

“The continued victim-blaming rhetoric by the Prime Minister is personally very distressing to me and countless other survivors,” Ms Higgins said on Wednesday, just minutes after Mr Morrison had again rebuffed questions on his government’s handling of the scandal.

“The government has questions to answer for their own conduct.”

The New Daily understands no Liberal Party member of government has reached out to Ms Higgins in recent days.

Morrison claims ‘inconceivable’

Ms Higgins alleges she was raped on a couch in the Parliament House office of her then-boss, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, by an older colleague in 2019. Senator Reynolds knew about the incident shortly after.

Ms Higgins. Photo: supplied

Mr Morrison maintains that his office was not aware of the allegations until it received a media inquiry last Friday afternoon, and that he personally didn’t know until Monday morning when the story broke online.

In Mr Morrison’s timeline, that means nobody in his well-staffed press office told him about the tsunami of a story in the two-and-a-half days between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.

That’s a claim which has boggled the minds of many journalists and politicos inside Parliament House in recent days.

That claim is “implausible” according to Anthony Albanese. Former PM Malcolm Turnbull called it “inconceivable” Mr Morrison’s office didn’t know earlier, saying it would have been “absolutely baffling”.

A Labor and crossbench proposal for a bipartisan, independent review into Parliament culture was accepted by the government on Wednesday afternoon, not long after Ms Higgins’ latest statement turned the blowtorch directly on Mr Morrison’s office.

She made stinging allegations against a senior member of the PM’s team, who was Senator Reynolds’ chief of staff at the time of the alleged rape.

Ms Higgins made the allegations while working in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office. Photo: AAP

“A current senior staffer to the Prime Minister and my former chief of staff refused to provide me with access to the CCTV footage from that evening and continually made me feel as if my ongoing employment would be jeopardised if I proceeded any further with the matter,” Ms Higgins claimed.

Mr Albanese said action needed to be taken.

“If I was Prime Minister and these events had occurred and a minister in my cabinet had kept any information from me and my office, they wouldn’t be maintaining that position,” he told Sky News.

Cash admits knowledge

Adding to the scrutiny was an admission from Senator Michaelia Cash that she knew about the rape report on February 5, some 10 days before the PM said he found out, and was made aware of an unspecified serious incident involving Ms Higgins in 2019.

Ms Higgins moved from Senator Reynolds to Senator Cash’s office in 2019, as a media adviser. She quit just weeks ago.

Brittany Higgins and former boss Michaela Cash. Photo: supplied

“I’m absolutely devastated by what Brittany has gone through,” Senator Cash told the Senate on Wednesday.

“I also offered to go to the Prime Minister’s office with her, to raise the matter directly with them. She said no.”

Senator Cash held various roles in the Coalition’s portfolio for women from 2010 to 2017, including Minister for Women from 2015 to 2017.

On Wednesday, Senator Cash revealed she had heard the full story of Ms Higgins’ allegations on February 5, and had offered to accompany her to make reports to the PM’s office and police.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, asked how he would respond to one of his staff making such a report, responded “I would make sure the authorities knew”.

Senator Reynolds had already come under immense pressure during her handling of the Brereton inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

She now faces further intense scrutiny for her handling of alleged crimes committed by her staff in her office.

Senator Reynolds gave an “unreserved” apology to Ms Higgins this week, but critics say she should have done more.

“I truly believed that I and my chief of staff were doing everything we could to support that young woman who I had responsibility for,” she said of her thinking at the time.

Bipartisan review

Mr Morrison has been criticised over his response so far.

On Monday, he gave only a short response in Parliament, calling the report “deeply distressing” and saying the government wanted “to respect her privacy”.

That day, Liberal MPs reported an avalanche of correspondence from constituents, outraged at the response.

Scott Morrison in Parliament on Wednesday. Photo: AAP

Mr Morrison was in front of cameras again at 8.30am on Tuesday, announcing two reviews and attributing his upgraded response to his wife advising him to think about their daughters.

That response, in turn, was met with dismay and derision.

In later press conferences, he claimed Ms Higgins had “become confused” in her recollections.

By Wednesday morning, the PM decided to avoid the media, and the Parliament’s Question Time saw the government cite privacy issues and potential police investigations to give only short answers on the incident.

Ms Higgins’ latest statement, released to coincide with Question Time, landed like a nuclear bomb.

Just three hours later, Mr Morrison’s office released a letter he wrote to Mr Albanese, accepting the request for another independent inquiry into political culture.

The bipartisan review will, the PM said, happen “at arm’s length from government, consult widely across parliamentarians and their staff, the departments and agencies that support our work, and provide constructive feedback on measures that can be implemented”.

Time will tell whether this response goes far enough.

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