Pressure mounts on Defence Minister over rape allegation
Pressure is mounting on Defence Minister Linda Reynolds after she did not inform the Prime Minister about a rape allegation involving a former staffer, as Labor claim her position is now untenable.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said if Ms Reynolds worked under him and had withheld such a serious allegation she would not be kept in cabinet.
"It seems to me pretty clear if I was Prime Minister and these events had occurred and a minister in my cabinet had kept any information from me and my office they wouldn't be maintaining that position," he told Sky News.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday said he understood Ms Reynolds was protecting the privacy of her then-staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped by a senior colleague in Parliament House in 2019.
But he also argued he should have been informed of the incident without disclosing Ms Higgins' identity.
Mr Morrison said Ms Reynolds was "seeking to provide support to Brittany in those circumstances, and had exercised judgment in relation to protecting her privacy".
"That judgment on that, of course, is being called into question and that issue … will carry with it some important lessons," he said.
Senator Reynolds apologised unreservedly to Ms Higgins in the Senate.
"At the time, I truly believed that I and my chief of staff were doing everything we could to support that young woman who I had responsibility for," she said.
The alleged incident on March 23, 2019 was initially treated as a security breach as Ms Higgins and the senior staffer had entered Ms Reynolds office after hours.
The alleged perpetrator was immediately sacked, but within days of the incident Ms Higgins told Ms Reynolds and some of her staff about the rape allegation.
Mr Albanese has claimed there are a "lot of contradictions" in Mr Morrison's account of the timeline including that he only became aware of the allegations when the story went public on Monday morning.
But in an interview with Channel 10, Ms Higgins said Mr Morrison's principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, contacted her to "check in" around the time the ABC's Four Corners program into sexual harassment in parliament was aired last year.
Mr Morrison said nothing had been put in front of him to suggest Mr Finkelstein had any contact with Ms Higgins.
"Nothing, including phone records or anything else that suggests that that indeed was the case," he said.
"The alleged perpetrator was sacked, removed, quite swiftly over the security breach, in terms of the allegation of a sexual assault that was not in front, I'm advised, of my office at that time."
Mr Albanese said he believed the account of Ms Higgins that she was contacted by Mr Finkelstein.
"I think she is entitled to be believed," he said.
Questions have also been raised about why the Department of Parliamentary Services had cleaned Ms Reynolds' office at the request of the Department of Finance, which handles HR and staff issues, the same day Ms Higgins was found in a disoriented state.
A DPS spokeswoman said the Australian Federal Police conducted inquiries into the action of DPS staff in the initial handling of the incident, including if there were any attempts to "conceal or interfere" with a suspected crime scene and found no criminality.
"The AFP advised that there were 'no disclosures of sexual assault made by the complainant on the day of the incident and therefore actions taken by them (DPS) were not in response with a suspected crime'," she said.
"As a consequence of this issue now being under active investigation, further queries should be addressed to ACT Policing."
Mr Morrison has asked WA Liberal MP Celia Hammond to look into the culture within the Coalition, while Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster will review the process of making workplace complaints.
National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union Melissa Donnelly has since written to Mr Morrison welcoming his two reviews, but demanding employees and their representatives be involved in the process.
"For some time, the CPSU has been concerned about issues of culture, workplace health and safety and reporting in MOPS (Member of parliament) workplaces," Ms Donnelly said in the letter.
"The nature of the working relationship, coupled with power imbalances in parliamentary offices, raise very particular risks that need to be properly addressed."
Ms Donnelly said for the reviews to achieve "longstanding change" in work practices and cultures, it must be independent of government, have bipartisan support, rely on experts and cover all MP workplaces, not just parliament.
She said the review must consider mandatory sexual harassment and bullying training for all MPs and senior staff, an independent complaints process and specialised support services for victims.
Originally published as Pressure mounts on Defence Minister over rape allegation