The federal education minister, Alan Tudge, will stand aside while an investigation into allegations made by his former staffer is carried out.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, on Thursday announced an investigation – to be carried out by the former bureaucrat Vivienne Thom – into the allegations Rachelle Miller made regarding her 2017 relationship with Tudge.
“These issues are obviously deeply concerning and I know deeply distressing – for Ms Miller, minister Tudge and the families affected by these events,” Morrison said in parliament.
“I have discussed Ms Miller’s statement with Mr Tudge, who refuted the allegations made. Given the seriousness of the claims made by Ms Miller, it’s important these matters be resolved fairly and expeditiously.
“To this end, the minister has agreed to my request to stand aside while these issues are addressed by my department, through an independent and fair process.”
The prime minister said the process would “enable my department to provide me with any further advice regarding any implications for the ministerial standards”.
“But I wish to stress that this action in no way seeks to draw a conclusion on these matters,” he said.
Morrison said Tudge had “welcomed” the process and looked forward to participating. He asked his chief of staff to tell Miller of the investigation.
Miller, who worked as Tudge’s press secretary while he was human services minister in the Turnbull government, first admitted to an extramarital affair with her boss in the November 2020 Four Corners episode Inside the Canberra Bubble.
On Thursday, just days after the release of the Jenkins review into parliamentary culture, Miller revealed her relationship with Tudge was “more complicated”, saying it was defined by a power imbalance. She alleged it was at times “abusive”. Tudge has denied the allegations.
Tudge said “given the immense personal impact” of the allegations he would take a period of leave between now and Christmas. But he said he “completely and utterly rejected” the accusations.
“Both of us have acknowledged publicly we had a consensual affair in 2017,” he said in a statement.
“This is something that I regret deeply. We were both married at the time and it was wrong. It contributed to the end of my marriage.
“Ms Miller and I worked closely together in 2017. It involved constant travel, long hours and often we were under pressure. We became attracted to each other and on a small number of occasions that attraction was acted upon. It should not have happened.”
Tudge, in a statement, said he had not seen Miller since 2017.
“I have accepted responsibility for a consensual affair that should not have happened. But Ms Miller’s allegations are wrong, did not happen and are contradicted by her own written words to me,” he said on Thursday.
“I regret having to say these things. I do not wish Ms Miller ill but I have to defend myself in light of these allegations, which I reject.
“The contradictory written evidence will be referred to a full, independent review. I welcome such a process and will make available both myself and all materials, and cooperate in every way.
“I would note that a previous set of claims were also considered and rejected through an independent investigation.”
Miller called on Australia’s leaders to commit to implementing all of the recommendations contained in the Jenkins report as soon as possible.
“The Liberal party doesn’t have a women problem,” she said. “It has a men problem. Labor have stayed quiet because they have just as many skeletons. The two major parties will work together when they’re protecting each other.
“I’m not here because I want to be but because speaking through the media is the only way this government will listen. All of us who have survived awful experiences in this workplace tried to reach out and seek change many, many times before we went to the media. This is our last resort.
“The Jenkins review showed the perpetrators are mostly male parliamentarians with immense power over their junior victims. As the PM reminded us all on Tuesday, they know they can only be held accountable by the Australian people at the ballot box.”
In a press conference in Canberra on Thursday, Miller said “it took a long time to face the truth about what happened but the memories are clearly etched in my brain”.
“This relationship was defined by significant power imbalance. It was an emotionally and on one occasion physically abusive relationship,” she said.
Miller said she was “fully aware that the text messaging between the minister and I over many years can at times look like I was a willing participant”, adding “he may use that” against her. But she said she could only tell her truth.
Miller alleged she had been “kicked” out of bed, naked, during a work trip with the minister one morning after a drinking session, when her phone began ringing at 4am with media calls.
“I felt someone kicking me on the side of my hip and leg as I tried to sit up in bed,” she said.
“It was the minister. He was furious, telling me to get the fuck out of his bed. I quickly told the producer I’d call her back. Then I realised I was completely naked. He continued to kick me until I fell off the side of the bed and ended up on the floor.
“I searched around in the dark for my clothes. He was yelling at me that my phone had woken him up. He needed to get some more sleep. He told me to get the fuck out of his room and make sure that no one saw me.”
Miller said she did her job and prepared the minister for his interviews. She said it was only later “when I had a moment to think” that she “could not remember a single thing from the night before”.
“I don’t remember how we ended up in the room, I don’t remember leaving the bar, I don’t remember if we had sex, I don’t remember if we used protection. I still don’t. And I was too afraid to ask if he remembered.”
She has previously alleged she was humiliated and belittled over her work and then believes she was later “blacklisted” from further jobs. She alleged she was prevented from carrying out her duties, and later made redundant, once rumours of her previous relationship with Tudge began circulating.
On Thursday, Miller said she felt compelled to come forward once more in support of the women who had spoken to the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, for her report.
“All I ever wanted was to the government to listen and to acknowledge our experiences in this building,” she said.
Miller said when she first spoke of her relationship with Tudge, she “wanted to spark a debate, but I was too unwell to continue to publicly advocate”.
“I’m fully aware that a year ago I said that my relationship with minister Alan Tudge was a consensual relationship but it’s much more complicated than that,” she said.
“I was so ashamed, so humiliated, so scared. I was exhausted. I told a small part of the story I was able to manage. I was very scared. The prime minister said it didn’t happen on his watch. Still not his problem.”
The prime minister declined to investigate Miller’s claims at the time, saying they occurred under Turnbull’s government, and no issue had been raised with him during his tenure as prime minister.
“These things happen in Australia,” Morrison said in November 2020. “People do things and they regret them, they do damage to their lives and the lives of many others, and I know there would be deep regrets about that.”
Tudge admitted to the relationship in a brief statement released following the Four Corners broadcast.
He also published a further statement on Facebook titled “Mistakes, regret and forgiveness”, saying his mistake was having an affair with a married woman with children.
Miller said she had nowhere to turn at work when she was at her lowest and said she felt under siege.
“There were times when he was kind,” she said. “We had great conversations. We did a lot of work together that was really, really good.”
But she said she was fearful about people finding out. “I was completely under his control. He war-gamed lines with me, telling me to stay silent, that we’re in this together, people were trying to destroy us, his career, my career, creating a bubble of isolation around me that took me away from all my family and friends.”