‘Mortified’: Texts reveal trouble for PM
Scott Morrison's claim that no one in his office knew about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins has been undermined by new text messages revealing his staffer was "mortified" by the story and had pledged to take action.
The text messages were exchanged between Ms Higgins and another Liberal staffer in April, 2019, after she had confided that she had been sexually assaulted but had got "jack-sh*t" support from the Liberal party.
Outraged, the man asked if he could take the matter to a friend who worked for the Prime Minister and ask for help on her behalf.
The man said he did so and on April 3, 2019, just 11 days after the alleged rape in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds' office, he reported back to Ms Higgins what happened in a text message.
"Spoke to PMO (Prime Minister's Office). He was mortified to hear about it and how things have been handled," the text reads.
"He's going to discuss with COS (Chief of Staff) - no one else. I flagged need for councillor (sic) and desire to be closer to home during election."
The date of the text messages, April 3, was just two days after Ms Higgins was called to a meeting with the then Defence Industry Minister Senator Reynolds in the room where she was raped.
But when contacted by news.com.au, the staffer, who still works in Mr Morrison's office, insisted he was never told Ms Higgins had been raped and had simply been asked to help find her another job after the election.
This version of the conversation is clearly at odds with the text sent by Ms Higgins's friend and his recollection at the time.
There are now at least three people working in the Prime Minister's office who knew of an "incident" in the Defence Minister's office two years ago but say they didn't realise it involved a rape allegation at the time.
They include the chief of staff John Kunkel who helped terminate the employment of the male Liberal staffer who took Ms Higgins into the office after hours, his Executive Assistant and the man referred to in the text messages.
A fourth person, the former COS in Senator Reynolds's office who now works in the PM's office, did know but says she didn't tell anyone to protect the victim's privacy.
The list of other people who knew of an "incident" two years ago also includes the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President of the Senate, security officials, Department of Parliamentary Services bureaucrats and Senator Reynolds's chief of staff who now works in the Prime Minister's office.
Senator Reynolds broke down in tears in the Senate on Thursday and was left unable to answer a question as the political fallout from an alleged rape in her office continues to take a dramatic toll.
The Prime Minister told parliament on Thursday that MPs, senators and staff had been left "traumatised" over the fallout from the scandal, announcing he would rush in emergency counsellors to help those affected by the recounting of the harrowing details.
During question time on Thursday, Senator Reynolds asked a question about Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton's administration of community grants but quickly became overwhelmed.
"If I could ask, if I could have indulgence, to answer on Monday,'' she said as she became visibly teary.
"I think I'd be in a better position to answer on Monday. If you could give me a minute? Can I take it on notice."
It is almost unheard of for a minister to take a question on notice during question time in that manner.
In the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister revealed that Senator Linda Reynolds held a secret meeting with an assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) over an alleged rape in her office two years ago, adding to the long list of people that knew about the alleged rape.
But despite this high level contact between the Defence Minister's office and the AFP, Mr Morrison insists that nobody told him about the rape until news.com.au published the story at 8am on Monday, February 15.
Even though questions were lodged on Friday, February 12 at 2.30pm and information sought from his chief of staff, principal private secretary and another staffer with knowledge of the rape in his office over the weekend, nobody in the office told the PM that the story was about to be published.
The Prime Minister said this week that there was never a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in his office but questions remain over why he was never told, a decision he has made clear he did not agree with.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash says she was told of an "incident" two years ago after the issue threatened to come up in Senate estimates but never knew until Ms Higgins quit her job that it involved an alleged sexual assault.
On Wednesday, news.com.au published voicemail recordings of Senator Cash urging Brittany to "sleep tight" and assuring her the office had the fallout "under control". The message was sent in October, 2019 when Senator Cash says she was unaware the incident involved allegations of sexual assault.
The Prime Minister refused to return fire over former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins claiming he was engaging in "victim-blaming rhetoric".
"The last thing I would want to see is to add any further disinterests to what Brittany is already going through,'' he said.
"I am doing everything to ensure that is the case and how we seek to handle these issues. I am very sorry she feels that way. She must be under tremendous stress during the course of this week.
"She has shown courage and bravery in speaking up. I have been listening to what she's been saying and I am seeking to put in place arrangements, whether it is the support of staff who are here in this building here and now and will be feeling, I think, increasingly fragile or vulnerable because of the nature of these events."
"Everyone here tried to do the right thing. They took advice and followed the advice and they sought to provide that support and this is what the challenge here is for us.
"Even when that has been done, it hasn't done the job because now Brittany clearly feels that way and that is not disputed. What we are seeking to apply our attention to is ensuring we learn from that and others are not in a position where they are faced with this again. That is simply what we are trying to do. That is simply what we are trying to do honestly and openly."
Originally published as 'Mortified': Texts reveal trouble for PM