Minister’s voicemail to Libs staffer
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash reassured a Liberal staffer "sleep tight" after an incident in a minister's office, pledging to her in a voicemail message that her chief of staff had the issue "under control".
Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped at Parliament House in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds' ministerial office by a colleague.
Ms Higgins was just 24 at the time of the incident in March 2019 and only months into her "dream job" of working at parliament.
The alleged incident threatened to explode in Senate estimates two years ago, prompting the voicemail from Senator Cash.
Senator Cash has told news.com.au that she never knew the issue involved an alleged sexual assault at the time, only that it was an incident in Ms Reynolds' office that Ms Higgins had informed her she preferred to keep secret at the time.
She did learn in recent weeks as Ms Higgins prepared to resign from the office and offered the ongoing trauma from the incident as the reason why.
Despite this, Senator Cash did not inform Prime Minister Scott Morrison or his office of the controversy.
Ms Higgins went to work for Senator Cash's office after she left the Defence Industry Minister's office after the 2019 election.
She commenced her employment in June 2019 and did not tell her new boss or chief of staff about the alleged rape.
"Cash 100 per cent didn't know. Until the Senate estimates thing,'' Ms Higgins told news.com.au.
"No-one in my office knew except one staffer. Apparently a concerned person just wanted to keep an eye out for me."
But in October 2019, nearly six months after the alleged assault she was horrified to learn that a media inquiry had been lodged with Ms Reynolds' office and the AFP about the incident.
This prompted frantic discussions between Ms Reynolds' office and Senator Cash's office over how to handle the matter.
TIMELINE: How alleged rape unfolded
In an October 2019 voicemail message to Ms Higgins obtained by news.com.au Senator Cash reassures her that the office has the issue "Under control. I promise you."
"Brittany, (it's) Michaelia. Just checking up on you. You looked absolutely gorgeous on Saturday,'' she said.
"I really hope you had a lovely time at the Federal Council. Hoping everything is OK. Look, Daniel has got everything under control. I promise you. And just remember. We are with you every step of the way. OK? Sleep tight. I see you tomorrow. Bye."
For Ms Higgins, she took the voicemail message that Senator Cash knew about the rape allegations. Senator Cash says she did not know exactly what happened until this year.
The Liberal Federal Council was held in Canberra over the weekend of October 19-20 and occurred one day after the media query was lodged on Friday, October 18.
It was Sunday, October 19 when the AFP contacted Ms Higgins about the possibility it could come up in Senate estimates on Monday, October 21.
It followed concerns that a journalist had lodged questions about "an incident" with the Defence Minister's office and the Australian Federal Police.
"I was pretty distraught, It was a long repressed trauma at that point. I was hysterical. I obviously said it wasn't me. But I think I had a panic attack kind of,'' she said.
"It was just the prospect that I had not pursued it, that I had buried it, that I had pretty much internalised it and then all of sudden it was being leaked anyway."
Ms Higgins was called to a meeting with the chief of staff and another staffer from Senator Reynold's office. However, the COS says he did not know at the time it involved an allegation of assault. He says he believed it to be an after hours security breach.
On the Sunday, October 20, Ms Higgins received a call from the AFP stating the ACT police commissioner had prepared notes on the media query to go into the 'briefing' pack for the AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw ahead of a grilling in parliament.
A spokesman for the AFP says that input before Senate Estimates did not reference any location details and included media responses previously issued by its team. The AFP Commissioner regularly receives briefs with on media responses.
Senator Cash's chief of staff called a distressed Ms Higgins to a meeting and assured her they would do all they could to meet her demands to quash the story from the public view including raising concerns at one point that the police were leaking the story and suggesting someone should "Call Dutton" - a reference to the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
"The general tone is they immediately thought it was the police. They became dead set that it was the police. They were like 'Don't worry. We will call Dutton'. And that was the end of the conversation,'' Ms Higgins said.
"I don't know how they solve problems."
A spokesman for Senator Cash has told news.com.au that the chief of staff never did call Mr Dutton or seek his assistance to quash the story.
Ms Higgins said her chief of staff then told her "I am going to tell the boss".
She then met with Senator Cash.
"The boss called me in. She was very nice. She gave me a hug. The rest was a sitting day. I took the rest of the day off,'' Ms Higgins said.
In a statement, Senator Cash's office said neither the chief of staff or the Employment Minister knew the full details of the night of March 2019 until recently.
"In the meeting following the CT inquiry in October 2019, Ms Higgins did not disclose that the incident was an alleged sexual assault, only that there was an incident involving another staffer, after hours, in Parliament House,'' a spokesman said.
"Ms Higgins said the matter had been dealt with at the time and adamant on not disclosing further details on the incident. These wishes were honoured by the COS and the Minister.
"Ms Higgins, the COS and the Minister met shortly after the initial meeting, where she again declined to go into detail about the incident. The Minister and COS respected her desire for privacy, and every support was offered to Ms Higgins."
The Minister and her Chief of Staff were not aware of any alleged staff incident occurring in Ms Higgins' previous employment.
"At the end of January this year, Ms Higgins advised the Minister and COS that the March 2019 matter had become an issue and that she wished to resign and leave Canberra,'' a spokesman for Senator Cash said.
"Both the Minister and COS advised that they wished for Ms Higgins to stay on in her role as she was good at it and they would do whatever they could to support her including relocating her job to Queensland, if she wished. Ms Higgins was grateful for the offer but declined."
Ms Higgins confirmed on February 5, 2021 that she would prefer to resign and leave Canberra.
Ms Reynolds remains under political fire for failing to inform the Prime Minister's office about the incident and her handling of the complaint.
She confirmed the male staffer involved had been "terminated" from government employment very shortly after the incident.
Originally published as Minister's voicemail to Libs staffer