Morrison’s office consulted about staffer dismissal after Brittany Higgins made rape allegation

Scott Morrison and then-special minister of state Alex Hawke were both represented at a meeting in April 2019 to discuss dismissing the Liberal staffer who Brittany Higgins has accused of sexual assault.

At the 4 April 2019 meeting, revealed at a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday, finance department officials provided advice on the process to terminate the staffer’s employment before the then-defence minister, Linda Reynolds, sacked him the following day.

The meeting was attended by an unnamed senior adviser in the prime minister’s office, Reynolds’ chief of staff, Fiona Brown, and Hawke’s chief of staff.

At Thursday’s hearing, Labor scrutinised Morrison’s claim his office was unaware of the sexual assault allegation until February 2021 because before then they had believed the staffer was dismissed for a “security breach”.

Higgins says she first reported she was sexually assaulted to Reynolds’ chief of staff on 26 March 2019 and subsequently spoke to federal police at Parliament House command.

Reynolds and Brown met with the AFP on 4 April 2019 – the same day as the meeting involving the finance department officials.

On Thursday, department officials took on notice questions about whether the reason for the termination was discussed at the meeting, including whether it was characterised as an alleged sexual assault or a security breach.

David de Silva, the first assistant secretary of the parliamentary services division, said it was a “verbal discussion” and he had not made a file note, taking on notice whether any other notes were taken.

Brown and a staffer who worked in Hawke’s office in early 2019 went on to work in the prime minister’s office before the Higgins complaint became public.

Nikola Anderson, the Parliament House security guard who signed in Higgins and the man who is alleged to have raped her, told the ABC earlier this year she wasn’t sure what security breach would have triggered the termination given the two staffers were pass-holders.

“What was the security breach? Because the night that we were on shift, there was no security breach,” Anderson told the Four Corners program in March.

On Thursday, Labor sought answers on the 10-day gap between Higgins’ report to Brown on 26 March 2019 and the Liberal staffer she accused of sexual assault being sacked on 5 April.

The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, laid responsibility squarely with Reynolds and her office.

“I can’t speak for senator Reynolds’ office and the process regarding when they completed the paperwork,” he said. “They were processes conducted by that office, within that office.”

Birmingham said the matters were “very sensitive” and that Reynolds’ office was at the time concerned with providing support to Higgins ahead of a possible police complaint and ensuring there were “valid grounds” for dismissal.

“As to the deliberations that occurred in that office in managing those sensitive issues, I can’t answer for them.”

Birmingham said he was “well aware” of what the prime minister had said about the reason for dismissal being a security breach but it was up to an “employing member or senator” to determine what grounds were relied on for dismissal.

Regarding the dismissal of the staffer, Reynolds told ABC TV on Thursday: “Like in any HR process, there was a process to be followed and it does take time. The Department of Finance has a process that is to be followed … so there is a time lag.”

Higgins has reported the alleged assault to the AFP, which has said a brief of evidence is likely to be sent to prosecutors within weeks.

Morrison has also asked his department head, Phil Gaetjens, to examine whether there was any contact between Higgins and members of his staff about the sexual assault before February this year.

On Thursday, Birmingham insisted processes had improved, citing the Australian federal police’s advice on referring criminal complaints and a new 1800 number to raise workplace issues.

The AFP commissioner, Reece Kershaw, revealed on Tuesday that a further 19 allegations of misconduct involving parliamentarians, their staff or “official establishments” had been reported to police since the former Liberal staffer went public.

Twelve of those have been classified as “sensitive investigations”, meaning they might involve parliamentarians or staff, while seven did not, he said.

Birmingham also indicated the government would pursue reforms proposed by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary, Stephanie Foster, for enhanced training and “independent investigative options” for employees who want to report serious non-criminal matters.

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