‘ACCESS TO SUITE’: List of staffers who knew of ‘incident’
The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate have joined the long list of people privy to allegations of "an incident" in the nation's Parliament two years ago that Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins claims was rape.
As the Morrison Government continues to face a barrage of questions over who knew what and when, the Presiding Officers of Parliament House have detailed the negotiations with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) around handing over CCTV that shows Ms Higgins and her male colleague entering the building on the night in question.
In doing so, the Presiding Officers have confirmed that Speaker Tony Smith first learned of an incident on Monday April 8, 2019 from the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services.
The President of the Senate, Victorian MP Scott Ryan, learned at least some detail around what had happened even earlier, on the evening of Wednesday, March 27.
This was just four days after Ms Higgins was found disorientated and half-naked in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds's private suite, but before even her chief of staff became aware it was a potential sexual assault.
News.com.au understands the chief of staff sought written advice from the Department of Finance on how a potential sexual assault should be handled, including offering additional employment assistance program counselling sessions, calling the 1800 RESPECT line and offering her support to go to the police.
Despite this written advice, which was provided to her chief of staff on Friday, March 29, 2019, Senator Reynolds has continued to assert that she wasn't even sure if it was sexual assault when she had an April 1 meeting with Ms Higgins and urged her to go to police.
Senator Reynolds claims she was formally advised later and only when the AFP called her about the investigation.
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What's now clear is that the department that runs Parliament House and is responsible for security was straight onto the issue on the morning of Saturday, March 23, before Ms Higgins had even left the building.
"The Department of Parliamentary Services advised the Department of Finance, administrator of the Ministerial Wing of APH, of access to the minister's suite on the morning of Saturday 23 March 2019,'' the Presiding Officers said in a statement.
The Department of Finance was told because it is responsible for administering the ministerial wing and would need to inform the relevant minister's office of any serious security breaches after-hours in the office.
But at this stage, the Department of Parliamentary Services insists that it still did not know it was a sexual assault. What it did know is that two staffers had entered the building after hours, intoxicated, required help from security guards to enter the suite and then the man had left, leaving a half-naked woman disorientated in the ministers' private suite.
News.com.au revealed on Tuesday that the Department of Finance had controversially ordered the cleaning of the office, a decision that was the subject of an AFP investigation that cleared anyone of wrongdoing.
"The Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) informed the President (Scott Ryan) on the evening of Wednesday 27 March 2019, following discussions with the Minister's office,'' the Presiding Officers said.
"The Speaker was informed of the incident on Monday 8 April 2019 by the Secretary of DPS. Neither of the Presiding Officers discussed this with the Prime Minister's office."
In other words, despite being informed of an "incident" in the then Defence Industry Minister's office within days of it occurring and learning the AFP was investigating, nobody thought it was worth alerting Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he raced towards calling the 2019 election.
The Prime Minister has told Parliament he first learned of the rape allegations on Monday around 8.30am after news.com.au broke the story at 8.04am. He has also claimed his office did not know until Friday at 2.30pm when news.com.au lodged questions about the incident. This is despite the fact that the chief of staff who handled the original incident now works in Mr Morrison's office.
"The Presiding Officers met with DPS later on 8 of April 2019. The POs were informed a request had been made to view the relevant CCTV footage by the AFP,'' a spokesman said.
"The Presiding Officers indicated that the application would be approved, and it was formally approved later that week. The reasons given to DPS for the proposed viewing were for operational awareness and not for the purposes of an investigation. The AFP viewed the footage at Parliament House on 16 April 2019 following compilation of the footage and lodgement of the official request.
"While DPS was not advised that there was a complaint, DPS became aware that there might have been a sexual assault allegation when a subsequent request was made on 18 April 2019, by the AFP, for release of specific CCTV footage. The reason given by the AFP for requesting the release of footage was to provide it to the ACT Policing Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Team. However, the Presiding Officers were later informed that no complaint was being progressed and there was no active investigation.
"As the advice to DPS was that there was no active investigation underway, the POs determined to store the footage on an ongoing basis with the agreement of the AFP for their access as required."
The new statement from the Presiding Officers of Parliament also provides an insight into the reports of a secret inquiry into how security handled the response to finding Ms Higgins and divisions in the ranks over the decisions to call in the cleaners to what we now know was a potential crime scene.
The Presiding Officers revealed for the first time that "anonymous" complaints about the night in question were referred to Parliament by a mystery senator, suggesting at least another MP was aware of claims a woman had been raped at Parliament.
"In March 2020, a senator referred to the Presiding Officers incomplete correspondence containing anonymous and serious allegations,'' the Presiding Officers said in the statement.
"The Presiding Officers referred this correspondence to the AFP."
The AFP responded in June 2020.
"Separate to the allegations of sexual assault, the AFP also conducted enquiries into the actions of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) staff in the initial handling of the incident, including whether there was any criminality identified, such as any attempts to conceal or interfere with a suspected crime scene,'' the Presiding Officers said.
"The AFP was able to establish that both DPS and Parliamentary Security Services (PSS) staff were involved in the response to this incident, and that there were no disclosures of sexual assault made on the day of the incident and therefore actions taken by them were not in response to a suspected crime.
"Irrespective of the absence of criminality, the AFP liaised heavily with DPS regarding this incident and the way in which it was handled."
As part of these negotiations, the Presiding Officers agreed to continue to maintain storage of the footage and launch an independent inquiry under Section 15 of the Parliamentary Services Act.
This inquiry reported to the DPS Secretary on October 29, 2020 and was passed to the Presiding Officers.
According to the statement, the report concluded that the evidence does not substantiate the claim that a senior official within DPS subsequently instructed staff to amend incident reports to minimise the event and remove key information.
It also does not substantiate the claim that a senior official within DPS instructed the Building Security Division to have the suite cleaned.
"The Presiding Officers were not aware of the identity of Ms Higgins until contacted by the media on Friday 12 February 2021,'' a spokesman said.
"On 12 February, following receipt of a media inquiry, the POs contacted the AFP and were advised that Ms Higgins had since approached the police and indicated she wished to proceed with a complaint and it was an open investigation.
"The POs have had ongoing consultations with the AFP regarding this matter with respect to retention of relevant CCTV footage which has been stored at the POs direction for any future requirement.
"Accordingly, the footage will be made available to the AFP for the purposes of any investigation.
"The Presiding Officers have not viewed the footage. The CCTV footage in question has only been viewed by members of the AFP, authorised DPS officials and the independent investigator. DPS has not provided CCTV footage access to any parliamentarian or member of staff."
Originally published as What Speaker knew about rape claims