Prime Minister Scott Morrison said no one in his office knew about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, but newly released text messages appear to show that the Prime Minister’s Office was made aware of the incident in 2019.
Higgins, a Liberal staffer who worked at the time for then-Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds, alleged she was raped by a male colleague in Reynolds’ ministerial office on March 23, 2019.
On Friday, News.com.au published text messages between a male Liberal staffer and Higgins, who she told about the alleged sexual assault. Higgins reportedly told him she had received “jack-shit” support from the Liberal party.
In the messages, the staffer asked Higgins if he could take this to a friend who worked for the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Spoke to PMO. He was mortified to hear about it and how things have been handled,” the text message 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 “mortified” staffer, who still works in the PM’s office, has now denied he knew anything about the alleged rape. When he was contacted by News.com.au, the staffer said he had just been asked to help Higgins find another job.
The text messages were sent on April 3, 2019, 11 days after the alleged rape.
Asked about the text messages by reporters on Friday, Morrison remained adamant that his office did not find out about the alleged rape until February 12 of this year, the weekend before News.com.au first published the allegation, but added that “if there was anything different here, I would like to know.”
Morrison has spoken to the head of the Department Of The Prime Minister And Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, asking him to investigate the phone records of PMO staff.
Despite Morrison’s claim, Higgins has said a senior staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office contacted her to “check in” last year, around the time Four Corners ran its investigation into Attorney-General Christian Porter and his treatment of women while in federal office.
Again, Morrison denied this.
“In relation to my [staff member], there is nothing that has been put in front of me, nothing, including phone records or anything else that suggests that that indeed was the case,” Morrison said on Tuesday, adding Gaetjens had been instructed to investigate the phone records of that particular staff member.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Morrison’s claim that his office weren’t aware of the alleged rape was “very, very hard to believe”.
“I find it inconceivable that that wasn’t well known to at least key members of the Prime Minister’s staff,” Turnbull told ABC News Breakfast this week.
Days after the alleged rape, Higgins said she was called into a meeting with Fiona Brown, the then-acting chief of staff for Reynolds. Higgins told her, in detail, about what happened.
The following week, Higgins was called into another meeting with Brown and Reynolds in the same room where the alleged rape happened.
“It was just a whiteout in my mind, because it’s the first time I’ve ever had to go back there,” Higgins told The Project’s Lisa Wilkinson on Monday.
According to The Guardian, Brown worked in Morrison’s office after the 2019 election, meaning she knew about the allegation in detail.
“I just remember feeling so-I’m sure they were saying words but I barely remember a single word they said during that entire process,” Higgins said.
“I was just so cognisant of this is where it happened, it’s right there, that’s exactly where it-and it was just this loop playing in my mind of this trauma that I had just come to terms with and I just thought it was unfathomable that they would put me in that space again.”
On Thursday, Reynolds said she was “deeply sorry” for her part in the government’s response to Higgins.
She said she did not pass on the report of the alleged rape out of concern for Higgins’ welfare and privacy.
“For my part, I am deeply sorry that Brittany felt unsupported at the time of the incident and in the months that followed, and in fact the years that followed,” Reynolds said in a statement to Parliament, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
“I am also deeply sorry that some of my actions and my handling of this matter added to Brittany’s distress.”
Help is available.
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If you’d like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
Under 25? You can reach Kids Helpline at 1800 55 1800 or chat online.Image: The Project, Getty Images / Diego Fedele