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The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has doubled down on claims his office knew nothing of the alleged 2019 rape of staffer Brittany Higgins, while delivering a veiled threat to Labor that the issue was not “confined to any one party in this place”.
The handling of the rape allegation dominated parliament on Thursday as government ministers denied a cover-up and Morrison insisted the response to Higgins’ allegation had “respected her wishes” at all times.
Higgins’ former boss, defence minister Linda Reynolds, broke down in the Senate and asked to be excused from answering an unrelated question, after earlier giving a statement saying she was “deeply sorry” that her ex-staffer felt unsupported at the time of the alleged rape and in the months and years that followed.
“I’m also deeply sorry that some of my actions and my handling of this matter added to Brittany’s distress,” Reynolds said.
The minister gave the Senate a timeline of her office’s response, saying her chief of staff, Fiona Brown, met with Higgins and the alleged perpetrator on 26 March, four days after the alleged rape, at which point they believed they were dealing only with a “security breach”.
The co-worker was terminated and, one day later, the secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services provided Reynolds a report about the breach.
On 1 April, the minister says she and Brown met with Higgins and offered “full support”, including access to the police if she wished to make a complaint.
It was also revealed that on 4 April, Reynolds and her chief of staff met with an assistant commissioner of the Australian federal police about the matter. The AFP would not comment further stating “the matter is an open investigation and further commentary could be prejudicial”.
Labor, meanwhile, sought to heap more pressure on Morrison over his claim he was unaware of the alleged rape until Friday, despite the fact that Brown, on secondment as Reynolds’ chief of staff at the time, has since returned to the prime minister’s office.
Morrison said Brown’s “knowledge [of the incident] related to her time in that role, not in her role in my office”.
“Seeking to conflate those things … and to suggest that involves a knowledge of my office, then that would be misplaced and that would be inaccurate,” the prime minister told parliament on Thursday.
He then offered a veiled threat to Labor that the “issue” was not isolated to the Liberal party. “I would say this to members of this house and in the other place – if there is any suggestion here that this is not an issue, or if there is any suggestion that this issue is confined to any one party in this place … I think that is a false suggestion. I think we all understand that.”
Morrison was also asked about Higgins’ accusation on Wednesday that he’d employed “victim-blaming rhetoric”.
“The last thing I would want to see is to add any further distress to what Brittany is already going through,” the prime minister told parliament. “I am doing everything to ensure that is the case. I am very sorry she feels that way.”
Both former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, believe it is highly unlikely Morrison’s office would not have known about an alleged rape in a minister’s office.
On Thursday morning, the prime minister’s office was accused of backgrounding journalists against Higgins’ current partner, saying he was motivated by spite because of his former role in government. The alleged tactics prompted furious criticism from Higgins.
“I knew personally that when I decided to put my name and face to this there would be repercussions for me,” Higgins told the Guardian.
“But I think it’s unfair if they are starting to try and take this out on loved ones. I think it speaks to the systematic problems of this place. It silences people and I think it’s gross.”
The government’s leader in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, said he planned to raise the alleged backgrounding with Morrison.
“I will take those matters up with the prime minister. I am certain he has no tolerance for such activities,” Birmingham told the Senate.
Marise Payne, the minister for women, was asked whether she retained confidence in Reynolds’ handling of the case. She responded that sometimes “no matter what happens or what is done it never seems to be the right thing or enough of the response one is seeking”.